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Savannah River Site

Savannah River Site


From the 1950s to the 1990s, the manufacture of nuclear weapons was a high priority item in the United States. The nation depended heavily on an adequate supply of atomic and hydrogen bombs as its ultimate defense against enemy attack. As a result, the government had established 17 major plants in 12 states to produce the materials needed for nuclear weapons.

Five of these plants were built along the Savannah River near Aiken, South Carolina. The Savannah River Site (SRS) is about 20 mi (32 km) southeast of Augusta, Georgia, and 150 mi (242 km) upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. The five reactors sit on a 310 mi2 (803 km2) site that also holds 34 million gal (129 million l) of high-level radioactive wastes.

The SRS reactors were originally used to produce plutonium fuel used in nuclear weapons. In recent years, they have been converted to the production of tritium gas, an important component of fusion (hydrogen) bombs.

For more than a decade, environmentalists have been concerned about the safety of the SRS reactors. The reactors were aging; one of the original SRS reactors, for instance, had been closed in the late 1970s because of cracks in the reactor vessel.

The severity of safety issues became more obvious, however, in the late 1980s. In September 1987, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a memorandum summarizing 30 "incidents" that had occurred at SRS between 1975 and 1985. Among these were a number of unexplained power surges that nearly went out of control. In addition, the meltdown of a radioactive fuel element in November 1970 took 900 people three months to clean up.

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, operator of the SRS facility, claimed that all "incidents" had been properly reported and that the reactors presented no serious risk to the area. Worried about maintaining a dependable supply of tritium, DOE officials accepted du Pont's explanation and allowed the site to continue operating.

In 1988, however, the problems at SRS began to snowball. By that time, two of the original five reactors had been shut down permanently and two, temporarily. Then, in August of 1988 an unexplained power surge caused officials to temporarily close down the fifth, "K," reactor. Investigations by federal officials found that the accident was a result of human errors. Operators were poorly trained and improperly supervised. In addition, they were working with inefficient, aging equipment that lacked adequate safety precautions.

Still concerned about its tritium supply, the DOE spent more than $1 billion to upgrade and repair the K reactor and to retrain staff at SRS. On December 13, 1991, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins announced that the reactor was to be re-started again, operating at 30% capacity.

During final tests prior to re-starting, however, 150 gal (569 l) of cooling water containing radioactive tritium leaked into the Savannah River. A South Carolina water utility company and two food processing companies in Savannah, Georgia, had to discontinue using river water in their operations.

The ill-fated reactor experienced yet another set-back only five months later. During another effort at re-starting the K reactor in May 1992, radioactive tritium once again escaped into the surrounding environment and, once again, start-up was postponed.

By the fall of 1992, changes in the balance of world power would cast additional doubt on the future of SRS. The Soviet Union had collapsed and neither Russia nor its former satellite states were regarded as an immediate threat to U.S. security, as former Soviet military might was now spread among a number of nations with urgent economic priorities. American president George Bush and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin had agreed to sharp cut-backs in the number of nuclear warheads held by both sides. In addition, experts determined that the existing supply of tritium would be sufficient for U.S. defense needs until at least 2012.

In 2000, the K reactor was turned into a materials storage facility. The site will soon be put back into action after the delivery of 6 tons of plutonium in June of 2002. The plutonium will be held at the site until it is converted into nuclear reactor fluid by 2017. If the plutonium has not been converted, it will be transferred to an other location.

[David E. Newton ]


RESOURCES

PERIODICALS

Applebome, P. "Anger Lingers After Leak at Atomic Site." New York Times (January 13, 1992): A7.

Schneider, K. "U.S. Dropping Plan to Build Reactor." New York Times (September 12, 1992): 5.

Sharp, Deborah. "Six Tons of Plutonium begin Journey to S.C." USA Today June 24, 2002 [cited July 2002]. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002/06/25/plutonium-usat.htm>.

Sweet, W. "Severe Accident Scenarios at Issue in DOE Plan to Restart Reactor." Physics Today (November 1991): 7881.

Wald, M. L. "How an Old Government Reactor Managed to Outlive the Cold War." New York Times (December 22, 1991): E2.

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