Crews move equipment used to inspect drums holding radioactive material into a storage site in K Area at the Savannah River Site.
Crews move equipment used to inspect drums holding radioactive material into a storage site in K Area at the Savannah River Site.

AIKEN, S.C.EM workers at the Savannah River Site (SRS) are setting the stage to accelerate the removal and disposal of plutonium from South Carolina.

They recently finished transferring equipment used to inspect drums holding the radioactive material from the site’s Solid Waste Management Facility (SWMF) to the K Area Criticality Control Overpack Characterization and Storage Pad. Characterization and shipping activities will be consolidated at that storage facility.

“The transfer of this equipment was no easy task,” DOE Nuclear Materials Senior Technical Advisor Maxcine Maxted said. “Weighing over 70,000 pounds and at 40 feet long, many departments had to be involved in the safe transport.”

Maxted said moving the equipment to K Area will allow SRS to eliminate the step of sending the drums to SWMF for characterization and shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico for final disposition.

“Now we can perform both of those tasks right from K Area, making the process more efficient,” Maxted said.

The relocated equipment includes an X-ray system that enables operators to inspect the contents of drums without opening them. The drums were developed to safely package and transport materials such as the downblended plutonium in the K Area that goes to WIPP for disposition. The downblended plutonium has been determined to be surplus to the nation’s defense needs.

“WIPP has specific standards for the type of materials allowed in their underground repository,” DOE-Savannah River Waste Disposition Programs Division Director Sonitza Blanco said. “The examination is performed under the certified Central Characterization Program, which is managed by the personnel from the managing and operating contractor of WIPP, Nuclear Waste Partnership. It verifies and validates that the waste within each container matches the documentation provided by SRS and that it does not contain any WIPP prohibited items.”

Following the inspection, employees ensure the contents of the drums are within radioactive limits. Next, the drums are certified for shipment to WIPP and loaded into a larger sealed container before leaving K Area.

The K Area storage facility will add capacity to store over 3,800 drums awaiting shipment. Construction is scheduled for completion later this year. After the storage facility is complete, DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will conduct regulatory reviews prior to WIPP authorizing the first shipment planned for 2022.

Workers also have completed extensive facility modifications and equipment upgrades at K Area to perform plutonium downblend more efficiently.