Thomas Johnson Jr., SRSCAB, Augusta

Savannah River Site deputy manager Thomas Johnson Jr. speaks to the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board on Monday in Augusta.

AUGUSTA — The still-in-the-works Salt Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site has faced "a lot of challenges over the years," according to site deputy manager Thomas Johnson Jr., who spoke Monday to a nuclear advisory panel.

Despite those hurdles, Johnson continued, official startup of the nuclear waste processing plant is within relative reach.

"We have, through the years, we have got a number of facilities ... that are in place and operational, whereas a lot of our other sites often face a lot of challenges in trying to get a facility into operations," Johnson said, comparing in general the Savannah River Site's track record with that of other nuclear cleanup complexes scattered across the country.

In October, SRS manager Michael Budney told the South Carolina governor's nuclear advisers the SWPF would be up and running mid-fiscal year 2020 – around March or April.

Johnson did not provide an exact startup date Monday. He's scheduled to give a much more in-depth presentation about the site and its work Tuesday afternoon, however.

The Salt Waste Processing Facility is designed to annually process millions of gallons of nuclear waste stored at the site. Officials have described it as a workhorse. Budney has signaled it's the key to the entire liquid-waste mission, which involves handling and processing roughly 35 million gallons of radioactive waste kept in aging, underground tanks.

Likely among the challenges Johnson alluded to Monday was a $5 million equipment replacement campaign at the SWPF. That swapping of parts – replacing hundreds of valve controllers, a move approved by contractor Parsons and the U.S. Department of Energy – cost roughly one year in terms of schedule.

"There's no one who's more disappointed than me that we had this valve issue," federal project director Pamela Marks said last year. She was speaking to the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board, the same group Johnson addressed Monday.

Startup of the Salt Waste Processing Facility had previously faced an incentivized December 2018 target; construction was complete in 2016.

In March 2018, the Energy Department issued Parsons an acerbic notice of concern, citing perceived performance problems.

The facility now is undergoing testing and evaluation ahead of full-on radioactive use. The SWPF contractor operational readiness review began Nov. 11, Johnson noted.

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