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The Savannah River Site is a 310-square-mile nuclear complex located south of Aiken and near New Ellenton.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The Salt Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site is nearing operational status, a feat that once achieved will greatly influence, and likely hasten, nuclear waste cleanup at the site.

The processing facility, right now undergoing testing and commissioning ahead of radioactive use, could start up by the end of the year (ahead of a 2021 deadline), according to a presentation slide shown Wednesday during a speech by Todd Shrader, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management. Shrader, though, was less committed to that timeline in his actual remarks.

Environmental Management, this year celebrating its 30th birthday, is the Savannah River Site landlord. Shrader is now the No. 2 official at the remediation office.

Earlier this year, Savannah River Site manager Michael Budney said the processing facility was moving forward and toward full-on operations. The Energy Department's fiscal year 2020 budget justification documents corroborated that outlook.

SWPF is designed to be a liquid-waste workhorse; the multibillion-dollar facility is set to, once online, process millions of gallons of radioactive waste each year, much more than what is currently being done. The more than 30 million gallons of waste stored in aging, underground tanks at the site has previously been described as South Carolina's single largest environmental concern.

Budney on Wednesday, attending the 2019 National Cleanup Workshop, said the processing facility is "key" to the entire liquid-waste mission, which is being handled by Savannah River Remediation, an AECOM-led team.

"In order to accelerate that mission and get it done in a timeframe we'd like … we have to have SWPF," Budney said, speaking briefly to the Aiken Standard.

The faster waste can be processed, the faster waste tanks can be closed, and the faster the Savannah River Site cleanup mission can be accomplished, former site manager Jack Craig explained Wednesday. He said handling tank waste – both in South Carolina and in Washington state at the Hanford Site – is a top concern.

"EM's mission is to clean up and basically work themselves out of a job, which is the right thing to do, and to do as expeditiously and safely as possible using taxpayer dollars," National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty told the Aiken Standard in mid-June.

Construction of the behemoth Salt Waste Processing Facility finished in 2016.

A SWPF predecessor, the Actinide Removal Process (ARP) and Modular Caustic Side Solvent Extraction Unit (MCU), was recently retired after 11 years of work. The ARP/MCU project enabled Environmental Management to process 7.4 million gallons of radioactive waste at the site and contributed to the closure of six high-level waste tanks.

The Savannah River Site is one of 16 active cleanup sites under Environmental Management's purview.

Parsons is the contractor behind the Salt Waste Processing Facility.

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