SRR, Tank Farm, Safety Gear

Savannah River Remediation employees wear personal protective equipment while conducting radiological work in a Savannah River Site tank farm.

It will be years before the next nuclear waste tank at the Savannah River Site is fully cleaned and closed, a point recently brought up by the site's manager, Michael Budney.

An SRS spokesperson confirmed the matter, further commenting that closure plans are on schedule.

The Savannah River Site, about 30 minutes south of Aiken, is home to roughly 35 million gallons of radioactive waste currently stored in dozens of aging, underground tanks. More than 160 million gallons of waste have been fed to the buffet of massive tanks – known as farms – since the site's inception in the 1950s.

"What we really want to do is close the tanks, right?" Budney said, speaking to the S.C. Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council, which met in Columbia last month. The liquid waste at SRS has previously been described as the state's single largest environmental threat.

The next tank at the Savannah River Site set for closure is Tank 15. Closeout should be complete in 2024, according to the SRS spokesperson.

"So we're still a couple years away from closing our next tank," Budney, the site manager, said. "We got a lot of material to process, and we got to make room for it."

Shuttering waste tanks at SRS is not a quick procedure – nor is it a loose affair.

So far, eight of 51 high-level waste tanks have been handled. A handful of tanks have been closed this decade.

"And it doesn't get less complicated as you go," Budney has said.

To close a tank at SRS, salt and sludge (forms of waste) must be removed. Preparation for what is formally known as the "bulk waste removal effort" takes several years and involves engineering and modification making.

Once that bulk waste has been pumped out, a small amount of more-difficult, residual waste known as the "heel" must be dealt with. That involves specialized mechanical or chemical work as well as isolating the tanks.

All of it is governed by stringent nuclear standards.

Then there is a years-long process of documentation and sampling and working with the federal government – the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency – and the state health department.

Once the OK is given, a waste tank can be grouted – filled with a cement-like substance – and sealed.

Tank 15 is awaiting heel work, the SRS spokesperson said.

The Savannah River Site is an active cleanup site overseen by the DOE Office of Environmental Management. The office, established in 1989, is charged with remediating the nation's Cold War and government-sponsored energy research legacy.

Savannah River Remediation, led by international infrastructure firm AECOM, is the liquid-waste contractor at SRS. The team has been on the job for about a decade.

Savannah River Remediation secured a $750 million contract extension in April. A previous extension was valued at $450 million.

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