Morning Briefing - May 12, 2020
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May 12, 2020

COVID-19 Halted Construction of Plutonium Disposal Facility at Savannah River

By ExchangeMonitor

The COVID-19 pandemic in April halted construction on the Savannah River Site’s Surplus Plutonium Disposition Project: the replacement for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility that will help the U.S. government dispose of 34 metric tons of weapon-usable plutonium.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) called a stop-work on the project in the second week of April after “personnel” there became ill according to a report published Friday by the independent federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB). The illness turned out not to be COVID-19, but work stopped anyway, with the rest of the site limiting access because of the pandemic.

As of last week, 13 people of Savannah River’s roughly 10,000-strong workforce had caught COVID-19. Of those, 10 had recovered by that point.

The NNSA plans this year to procure glove boxes needed for Surplus Plutonium Disposition, in which plutonium oxides will be blended with an inert, classified material called stardust ahead of disposal.

The agency plans to install the three glove boxes at the site’s K-Area, where the NNSA planned this year to remove and demolish some unneeded equipment and structures. The weapons agency plans further construction in the 2021 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management is already performing similar work, known informally as dilute-and-dispose, at K-Area.

Savannah River’s management and operations contractor, the Fluor-led Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, is managing the NNSA work. Savannah River’s part of the project will cost between $448 million and $620 million to build and operate. The project in December, reached Critical Decision 1, the point in DOE project management when the agency formalizes a design choice.

The NNSA plans to complete the Surplus Plutonium Disposition facility at Savannah River by 2028, with operations continuing into the 2040s. Congress appropriated nearly $80 million for the project in 2020, as requested. The NNSA seeks $150 million for the project in fiscal 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

The South Carolina government, and its representatives in Congress, remain wary that the diluted plutonium may never be shipped out of the state. South Carolina is suing the federal government about the plutonium, seeking $200 million in fines after the agency did not begin removing the material by Jan. 1, 2016.

There was no immediate word by deadline Tuesday regarding the status of Surplus Plutonium Disposition construction.

For the broader Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program, the NNSA plans to blend diluted plutonium with stardust at the Savannah River Site, then bury the mixture deep underground at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. The Office of Environmental Management owns that facility, which is rapidly filling up with more waste than it is legally authorized to hold.

 

Editor’s note, 05/13/2020. The story was corrected to show that personnel at the Surplus Plutonium Disposition tested negative for COVID-19.