Aerial of K Area Complex
Crews at the K Area Complex at the Savannah River Site recently completed their 100th plutonium downblend for fiscal year 2023.

AIKEN, S.C.EM crews at the Savannah River Site (SRS) recently completed their 100th plutonium downblend in fiscal year 2023 safely and ahead of schedule as part of ongoing work to remove the material from South Carolina.

“Reaching the 100th plutonium downblend well ahead of schedule is a huge accomplishment and a testament to our team’s commitment to remove plutonium from the state,” said K Area Deputy Facility Manager Maxwell Smith of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS), the managing and operating contractor at SRS. “Much of our work in the past few years has been to introduce efficiencies and speed up our processing rates, and it’s gratifying to see the results of those efforts.”

Plutonium materials in K Area are sealed inside a robust configuration of storage and shipping containers until they are ready to be downblended. That process involves mixing the plutonium materials with an adulterant, producing a mixture that can eventually be safely disposed of at EM’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Downblending began in K Area in 2016 and was paused in 2019 to optimize equipment, training and personnel to expedite the process. That included installing new material entry and removal devices for the glovebox where downblending takes place; designing and fabricating special carts to move the downblend containers through the glovebox; and relocating equipment inside the glovebox to improve efficiency of the downblend process flow.

A stainless-steel containment enclosure about 15 feet long and 3 feet wide, the glovebox contains safety glass panels and fitted gloveports to allow radioactive materials handling, and isolates workers from associated hazards.

The K Area facility also moved from two- to four-shift operations and more than doubled the number of trained operators in the facility, so downblending could be done 24/7.

“SRNS has safely accomplished a great amount of work in an effort to increase downblending operations,” DOE-Savannah River Nuclear Materials Program Manager Bert Crapse said. “Because of their commitment, K Area went from completing nine downblends in fiscal year 2017 to completing over 100 in fiscal year 2023.”

Employees are set to begin processing plutonium material originally slated for fiscal year 2024 due to K Area reaching its downblending goal for fiscal year 2023 ahead of schedule, Smith said.

“Downblending supports DOE’s nonproliferation mission, and the K Area team is proud to be part of that mission,” he said.

Employees in K Area are installing three new gloveboxes and support systems, and constructing a HEPA electrical building and ventilation stacks as part of a project to help further increase downblending rates. That work is being done in conjunction with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s surplus plutonium disposition mission.

-Contributor: Lindsey MonBarren