A view of the Savannah River Site K Area Complex, where plutonium downblending operations take place.
A view of the Savannah River Site K Area Complex, where plutonium downblending operations take place.

AIKEN, S.C.EM has doubled the number of work shifts for employees in glovebox operations at the Savannah River Site (SRS) to advance DOE’s mission of removing plutonium from South Carolina.

“Moving from two- to four-shift glovebox operations increases our plutonium downblending rates through our existing glovebox,” said Maxwell Smith, K Area deputy operations manager for SRS management and operations contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS).

SRNS put together a team of 48 operators and support personnel needed to fill the four shifts, and is managing a pipeline program of 10 employees to fill positions as needed from attrition, Smith said.

“Many of those pipeline employees are a part of the apprenticeship program in place with Aiken Technical College,” Smith said. “We are also looking into expanding the apprenticeship program to other local technical colleges, providing us with more resources to fill our pipeline.”

Moving to four shifts is part of activities to increase efficiency of the K Area Complex. Last year, workers improved the K Area Interim Surveillance glovebox, where downblending currently occurs. The glovebox is a stainless-steel containment enclosure, approximately 15 feet long and 3 feet wide. It contains safety-glass panels and fitted gloveports to allow radioactive materials handling, and isolates workers from associated hazards.

Workers recently completed construction on a storage and shipping pad for interim storage of downblended materials before they are shipped out of South Carolina for permanent disposal.

SRS boosted the shifts for glovebox operations ahead of schedule despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fact that we were able to train employees, prepare, and initiate the additional shifts ahead of schedule was an impressive feat given the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated reduction of on-site staffing and social distancing requirements,” SRNS K Area Complex Facility Manager Lee Sims said. “We attribute much of this success to the veteran operators on staff who have worked diligently to make sure the newer operators are trained, prepared, and ready to work safely.”

Launching the four-shift glovebox operations is only the beginning, according to Smith.

“Continuing training, mentorship, and growth of experience are required to ensure the continued safe and successful operation of the program,” Smith said.

Plutonium downblend, also referred to as dilute and dispose, is the process of mixing plutonium oxide with a multicomponent adulterant. The mixture enables DOE to meet requirements for shipping plutonium to EM’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for final disposition.

“Initiating four-shift glovebox operations helps further our nation’s nonproliferation objectives,” National Nuclear Security Administration Office of Material Disposition Director Virginia Kay said. “We are committed to removing excess plutonium from South Carolina by safely disposing of this material, and achieving this milestone is demonstrative of progress toward that objective. We are pleased that SRNS was able to initiate the additional shifts ahead of schedule, even when faced with the challenges presented by the pandemic.”