DWPF, SRS New Contract

The Defense Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site, a plant that is involved in the liquid waste mission.

The U.S. Department of Energy is working on a new contract for the Savannah River Site, focusing on the management of nuclear materials and millions of gallons of radioactive waste there in an effort to reduce environmental and financial liabilities.

Under the contract – which is "in the very early stages," a DOE spokesperson told the Aiken Standard – a single contractor would lead a cluster of nuclear tasks that are currently relegated to two separate teams.

More specifically, the job comprises the SRS liquid-waste portfolio as well as operations at L-Basin and H-Canyon, according to the spokesperson.

Liquid waste work at SRS includes processing millions of gallons of nuclear waste, closing the aging underground tanks the waste is in, and operating the Defense Waste Processing Facility, which converts waste into a glassified form better suited for long-term storage.

L-Basin is a spent nuclear fuel area at SRS; it has concrete walls up to 7 feet thick and pools of water up to 50 feet deep, according to public DOE information. The water shields workers from radiation.

H-Canyon, which began operating in 1955, was historically equipped for tasks related to uranium and neptunium and plutonium. H-Canyon is the nation's only up-and-running hardened nuclear chemical separations plant. Work and maintenance there are done remotely.

The move to consolidate – officially known as the "Savannah River Site Integrated Mission Completion Contract" – comes at a time when members of Congress are monitoring, and questioning, the mounting costs related to nuclear cleanup across the country.

In early May, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations panel, of which U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan is a member, held a hearing probing DOE's escalating costs.

"The Department of Energy faces nearly $500 billion in environmental liabilities related to cleaning up nuclear and hazardous waste left over from Cold War weapons production and federal energy research," U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Diana DeGette of Colorado said in joint remarks. "This waste poses serious risks to human health and the environment."

During the hearing, Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, said funding nuclear cleanup would likely be supported by the public – especially in light of the "money our government spends on other things."

"Go to Savannah River Site and understand what they're dealing with with underground tanks, what they're dealing with with H-Canyon, its ongoing missions and the waste that will be created then," Duncan said as he wrapped up his roughly six-minute monologue. "Because this isn't going away as our nation continues to try to be safe in a global environment that we have."

Details about the new contract's cost and timing are still being ironed out, according to a procurement spreadsheet maintained by the DOE Office of Environmental Management. That document, which is publicly available, was last updated May 10.

Environmental Management, founded in 1989, is the landlord at SRS, a sprawling nuclear establishment south of Aiken. The office is tasked with cleaning up the government's nuclear legacy from the Cold War.

The contract's effect on jobs at the 310-square-mile reserve is not immediately clear.

The DOE spokesperson said the Savannah River Site Integrated Mission Completion Contract will enable "maximum advancement" of SRS remediation. Approaching it with a single contractor, the spokesperson noted, is in the government's best interest.

The move is also in line with what Environmental Management's leader, Anne Marie White, has recently championed: end-state contracting.

Combining L-Basin, H-Canyon and liquid waste services at SRS makes outward sense: L-Basin, a nuclear storehouse, feeds the disposition work at H-Canyon, which in turn generates the only new waste that is directed into the SRS liquid waste system.

"To complete the liquid waste mission, the transfers of newly generated waste must end," reads a statement forwarded by the DOE spokesperson.

The assimilation was telegraphed in February when the DOE canceled a years-in-the-making search for the next liquid waste contractor. At the time, the DOE cited changes to the overarching approach. The DOE spokesperson said the solicitation was "no longer beneficial to the SRS mission," echoing earlier comments.

The nixed solicitation was pockmarked by competitor protests and an unfair evaluation, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that monitors federal spending. It handles formal bid protests, as well.

Savannah River Remediation, led by AECOM, will remain in charge of the liquid waste mission until a new team is selected for the integrated contract. The same can be said for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the management and operations contractor at SRS, in terms of L-Basin and H-Canyon.

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin