New reactor fuel mission floated for Savannah River Site, DOE documents show | Savannah River Site
The Department of Energy is looking at the Savannah River site as a potential site for the production of reactor fuel, a long-term nuclear company that would create hundreds of jobs while consuming tons of plutonium, a dangerous metal that has been a source of anger in South Carolina for years.
In draft environmental assessment documents released late last year, the department listed SRS, about 30 minutes south of Aiken, as a possible location for raw material processing or fuel production, or both, for a multi-purpose test reactor under consideration in Idaho or Tennessee.
Proponents of the research reactor, often referred to as a “video recorder,” argue that it will aid in the testing of advanced fuels and materials and strengthen the country’s energy portfolio while remaining safe.
“This testability is essential for the US to modernize its nuclear power industry,” reads the Department of Energy’s preliminary review, which is publicly available. An accelerated schedule is necessary to “avoid further delays in the development and use of advanced nuclear energy technologies in the US”.
Opponents argue, however, that the drive to build plants, produce fuel, work for decades and deal with the waste generated is economical and carries serious environmental and proliferation risks.
“The DOE claims they need a fast neutron reactor for experimental purposes,” said Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, in comments submitted to the department.
While the Department of Energy prefers to build the versatile test reactor at the Idaho National Lab, hours east of Boise, the government has not officially given a favorite when it comes to where to make the required fuel.
The December 2020 environmental study considers the Savannah River site and Idaho National Lab for fuel production, or a combination of both. “DOE currently has no preferred options.”
Although the Savannah River site was discussed as the location for the reactor link itself at one point – due to its “extensive history” with reactors and a range of technical and nuclear management skills, documents show – the idea was ultimately discarded. The Savannah River site has not operated a reactor in decades, and other power facilities have operational ancillary facilities.
“The center of excellence for this type of work is in Idaho or the Argonne National Lab,” said Jim Marra, executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. But the Savannah River site, he continued, “has great expertise in handling these materials and could certainly work with these other laboratories, much like they are working with Los Alamos on the current mining mission.”
This map, provided by the Department of Energy, shows which locations have been investigated. (Ministry of Energy / provided)
The versatile test reactor fuel would require plutonium, among other things. Plutonium, already managed by the Department and its National Nuclear Safety Agency, would be enough, the environmental study says. If not, there are potential sources in Europe.
Up to 34 tons of plutonium could be needed for the start and 60 years of versatile test reactor operation.
“Such proposed large-scale manufacture and use of fuels containing a mixture of plutonium and uranium raises a number of important concerns,” commented Dr. Alan J. Kuperman, Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project.
Caches are already available at the Savannah River site – to the chagrin of some Palmetto State officials – and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
“I don’t see 34 tons of plutonium coming into South Carolina and then just sitting there,” said Kuperman in an interview on Wednesday. “I mean, if you did that, it would be really bad logistics management from DOE, and I’m sure your governor would sue and block that.”
What and where
Fuel work at the Savannah River site would be dedicated to K-Area, an aging high-security storage complex, or the similar L-Area, a spent fuel depot.
The early review of the environmental impacts by the federal government concentrates on the K area, as the effects on the L area would be comparable.
The duties at the Savannah River site would require the installation of new equipment – such as glove boxes that protect a person from toxic materials – and could require shuffling equipment and other stored items.
“Existing systems would be modified as required and existing equipment reassigned to support both raw material processing and fuel production,” says the preliminary review. “Equipment currently in this area would be relocated for use in other facilities.”
Raw material processing and fuel manufacturing would create hundreds of new jobs at the Savannah River site. The energy ministry noted that the increase in jobs is a good thing for the local and regional economy.
“It’s not going to be a game changer with the number of jobs,” said Marra, “but it would certainly come back and bring some high-tech people with it and keep a core skill at the location.”
SRS is a multi-billion dollar economic engine for South Carolina and Georgia. Approximately 11,000 people work on the site, a third of whom are from Peach State.
“The existence and operation of SRS have far-reaching effects on the local economy,” says a 2011 study. It continues: “The local economies in South Carolina and Georgia benefit greatly from the funding and projects at the Savannah location River. “