SRS Entrance German SNF Import

The entrance to the Savannah River Site, which is located near the town of New Ellenton.

The U.S. Department of Energy has given the environmental all-clear on a possible Savannah River Site project that would involve the import and processing of 900 kilograms of highly enriched uranium.

A DOE environmental assessment, issued this month, says the project would have very little to no impact on the water, air, land and people involved or surrounding the proposed project. 

The DOE expects the overall project would cause no latent cancer fatalities, which are deaths caused by cancer that appears long after initial radiation exposure.

The DOE issued a "Finding of No Significant Impact" on Dec. 20. DOE Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management James Owendoff signed off on the findings.

The assessment and the findings are not a decision to move forward with the project, though.

The U.S. Department of Energy issued their findings on a proposed nuclear material import project earlier this month. Here's the report summary.

The United States gifted the nuclear material – now a majority highly enriched uranium embedded in graphite spheres – to Germany under the Atoms for Peace program between 1965-1988. Atoms for Peace was an initiative introduced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Cold War era. It provided research materials and nuclear education to several countries.

This specific batch of German nuclear material was used for reactor cooling research, according to DOE documents.

In September, the Citizens Advisory Board voted against accepting the nuclear material, according to previous Aiken Standard reports.

If the repatriation project does go through – which currently is far from a sure thing, as at least four years and $50 million of technological maturation and several more studies would be required – the 900 kilograms would first be handled and moved by the German government.

The spent fuel would be securely packaged in what are known as CASTOR casks, and the German government would charter ships for Atlantic passage.

According to DOE documents, moving all the material would take approximately 30 shipments over the course of three-and-a-half years.

There are approximately 455 CASTOR casks and a total 1 million graphite spheres, each the size of a tennis ball, according to the DOE. A typical shipment would contain 16 casks.

The DOE estimates the chance of a cask ending up in "deep water" to be one in 910,000. The chance of submersion along the coast ranges between one in 34 billion and one in 67 billion, according to the environmental assessment.

"The public would not receive a radiation dose from incident-free ocean transport," DOE documents read.

The spent nuclear fuel would then be unloaded, now in the charge of the American government, at Joint Base Charleston Weapons Station, a base within the North Charleston City limits.

Environmental impacts at the joint base are "expected to be minimal," and any accidents there would be within the realm of control and appropriate response, according to the DOE.

Spent Nuclear Fuel Options

This U.S. Department of Energy flowchart depicts how the spent nuclear fuel could be handled at the Savannah River Site.

From there, the nuclear material would be transferred to "dedicated" railcars, DOE documents state, and would be moved to SRS. There, the material would be unloaded and securely stored, which may require minor construction, according to the DOE.

Once proper processing facilities are "ready," the assessment reads, the nuclear material would be handled. There are several plans of action on file.

Waste would be stored until proper disposal is available.

"All costs" would be paid for by Germany, according to an SRS spokesperson.

The proposed import undertaking was first introduced in 2012, when the German state secretary of federal education and research sent a letter to the United States. In 2014, preparation work began and a statement of intent for possible consideration was passed, according to the DOE.

A public meeting regarding the project was held last year. A public comment period was opened, and then extended, as well.

In total, more than 200 comments were submitted, according to public comment appendices attached to the DOE's findings.

The material would be destined for SRS, according to DOE documents, because the "facilities and capabilities proposed for processing this spent nuclear fuel are unique to DOE and SRS."

H-Canyon, an SRS site built in 1950 and operating since 1955, is the only hardened nuclear chemical separations plant still operating in the country.

According to an SRS spokesperson, the graphite dissolution technology, which is still under development, needed for the possible project is "unprecedented."

H-Canyon was historically used to recover uranium and neptunium from fuel tubes – foreign and domestic.

The DOE documents state L-Area, a storage and receiving sector, and E-Area, a waste management sector, would most likely be involved, too.

The repatriation of nuclear material also supports American policy of denuclearization and nonproliferation, according to the environmental assessment.

Colin Demarest is a reporter with Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since November 2017. He is a New Jersey native and received his B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin