AIKEN, S.C. – The world’s largest scientific membership society recently designated the Savannah River Site (SRS) as one of the nation’s “National Historic Chemical Landmarks.”
The American Chemical Society (ACS) recognized the site’s role in the production, separation, and supply of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), which was used to power NASA’s unmanned, deep space exploration craft for more than four decades. SRS was the first site of industrial-scale separation of Pu-238, which occurred from 1960 through 1988.
In a ceremony earlier this month, SRS Manager Mike Budney accepted a commemorative bronze plaque from ACS President Peter K. Dorhout. The event took place in conjunction with an ACS regional meeting hosted by the society’s Savannah River section.
SRS is the first landmark designated by ACS in South Carolina.
“This is humbling and an honor,” Budney said. “To see the Savannah River Site on a short list with the likes of Thomas Edison and Joseph Priestly is pretty special. Many people dedicated their working lives to programs like Pu-238 production at the Savannah River Site. They were never really able to tell their family or friends what they did. I hope this designation allows them to finally say, ‘We did that.’ Forty years later their ideas and processes are still being used to help us explore the bounds of space — a true testament to its historical significance.”
In 1960, production of Pu-238 began at SRS through a process developed at the site. The site’s H Area facilities were used to separate neptunium-237 (Np-237) from irradiated enriched uranium, and, ultimately, to separate and purify Pu-238 from the irradiated Np-237 target material.
Pu-238 has been used as heat source material for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), the “nuclear batteries” that powered early satellites, NASA’s Apollo lunar craft, and deep space probes such as Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini, and New Horizons. Those probes made the U.S. the first nation to reach every planet in the solar system with a space probe. The RTGs function by converting the decay heat of the radioactive material into electrical energy.
“As someone who has worked with plutonium in order to better understand its fundamental structures and properties, I appreciate the difficulties that the scientists at SRS faced,” said Peter Dorhout, ACS president and vice president for research at Kansas State University. “Learning new chemistry and developing industrial-scale production of plutonium-238 was critical to the success of this program, and ACS recognizes those fundamental advances to improve our exploration of the universe.”
Since 1992, ACS has granted landmark status to seminal achievements in the history of chemical sciences, including the world’s first synthetic plastic and the discovery and development of penicillin.