SRS Sign, SWPF Update

An entrance to the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile nuclear reservation south of Aiken and near New Ellenton.

Despite some recent project woes, the U.S. Department of Energy still expects the Salt Waste Processing Facility, a Savannah River Site nuclear waste workhorse, to be up and running later this year.

The multibillion-dollar plant should be operational this spring, an Energy Department spokesperson told the Aiken Standard late Thursday. That's in line with the mid-fiscal year 2020 timeframe – March or April – Savannah River Site manager Michael Budney suggested near the end of last year.

The Energy Department and Parsons, the Salt Waste Processing Facility contractor, are now working together to address readiness concerns, which were outlined in at least two reports from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent watchdog within the executive branch. The DOE has acknowledged them as "challenges."

In a Dec. 6 dispatch, the DNFSB reported three objectives in a readiness review – fire protection, radiation protection, work planning and control – were "not met." A week later, the DNFSB cited four similar troubles: radiation protection, work planning and control, fire protection, and emergency preparedness.

"DOE management has expressed serious concerns with the above and plans to issue direction to Parsons imminently," the Dec. 6 write-up reads in part. 

Parsons has since submitted a plan of action, the Energy Department spokesperson said.

Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness Executive Director Jim Marra on Friday said it is not uncommon for issues to be identified or highlighted during such tests.

Once online, the Salt Waste Processing Facility will handle and process millions of gallons of nuclear waste at the Savannah River Site, 30 minutes south of Aiken, every year. That's far more than what's being done now. The facility's predecessor, the Actinide Removal Process (ARP) and Modular Caustic Side Solvent Extraction Unit (MCU), was shuttered recently after 11 years of work.

The springtime expectation for the Salt Waste Processing Facility is still ahead of a hard 2021 project deadline but falls far after an incentivized December 2018 target. Construction of the SWPF finished in 2016.

In late 2018, federal project director Pamela Marks told the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board the SWPF schedule would slip about one year due to necessary equipment replacement. Swapping out hundreds of valve controllers – a move deemed suitable by both Parsons and the Energy Department – cost $5 million, with parts, labor and maintenance included, Marks said at the time.

In March 2018, the Energy Department issued Parsons a barbed notice of concern, accusing the contractor of "degrading performance," among other things, which the department said significantly impacted "project delivery."

About 35 million gallons of radioactive waste is currently stored in aging, underground tanks at the site. It's previously been described as South Carolina's single largest environmental concern.

Budney, the Savannah River Site manager, has described the SWPF as crucial to overall cleanup: "In order to accelerate that mission and get it done in a timeframe we'd like … we have to have SWPF."

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin