Office of Environmental Management

Collaborative SRS Pilot to Increase Spent Nuclear Fuel Processing Rates

May 15, 2018

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An operator takes a sample of process solution in the sample aisle at H Canyon. Under the initiative to improve spent nuclear fuel processes, online monitors will eliminate the need to pull samples for lab analysis during routine process operations.

AIKEN, S.C. – A new initiative to improve spent nuclear fuel processes at the Savannah River Site’s (SRS) H Canyon could save $2 billion over the life of the chemical separations facility.

   EM and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS), the site’s management and operations contractor, have teamed with the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) to develop a charter for a process of Collaborative Innovation (COIN) to develop technology to improve safety and quality, and increases spent nuclear fuel processing rates by 50 percent.

   One way to do that is through the use of online monitors.

   “These measure the solution real-time instead of an operator having to physically pull a sample and take it to the Analytical Laboratory for testing,” said Ed Sadowski of SRNL. “This will save both time and money.”

   Sadowski noted that the initiative will cost $13 million in initial investment to install the online monitoring capabilities, and could result in approximately $2 billion in savings over the life of the canyon.

   “The COIN team will continue to engage in the implementation of the recommendations to evaluate opportunities for efficiency improvements,” Sadowski said.

   Another COIN improvement to reduce the number of samples submitted to the SRNL Analytical Laboratory during normal process operations is to take advantage of the inherent H Canyon chemical process, physics, and chemistry. Uranium isotopics only need to be measured after mixing solutions of varying isotopics and not in every tank, as they once were, since H Canyon’s chemical processes cannot alter the uranium isotopics. 

   The team also will find alternative methods to the thermal ionization mass spectrometer (TIMS), which provides uranium concentration and isotopic measurements. TIMS is nearing the end of its service life and is expensive to replace. The team identified several alternative methods to provide concentration and isotopic measurements with enough accuracy for H Canyon’s needs.

   COIN team members are scheduled to implement the initiative in three stages by 2021. Its phases include:

  • Evaluating the use of online monitors at five locations where existing infrastructure can support them prior to completing the design and installing the monitors. They also will design and fabricate a mock sampler unit. This phase is scheduled for completion by the end of September.
  • Installing monitors at eight locations without existing infrastructure support, and qualifying and implementing alternative TIMS methods.
  • Designing and installing monitors at eight more locations without existing infrastructure, and designing, installing, and implementing the use of sample pulse height analyzers. These instruments sort electrical pulses generated by photons and route the different energy pulses to the correct scalers where counts are recorded.  

   H Canyon is the nation’s only operating, production-scale, radiologically shielded chemical separations facility. Uranium is recovered from spent nuclear fuel through a complex chemical process, in which fuels are dissolved and run through solvent extraction cycles that remove impurities present in the fuel. During this process, nuclear regulations require samples of the uranium solution be tested periodically to ensure the proper concentration of uranium.

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