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Savannah River Site, Aiken

The Savannah River Site’s mission is the “processing” of radioactive nuclear materials used in weapons and reactors. This involves the separation of useful quantities of tritium, plutonium, and uranium from waste products created during their production as well as the recycling of radioactive materials. It’s also a storage site for several tons of uranium and plutonium as well as radioactive waste products, and “packaging” radioactive materials for storage is a big activity. During the Cold War, this was perhaps the biggest production facility for nuclear materials in the world; now it’s where nuclear materials are stored until someone figures out what to do with them.

Located on the Savannah River along the South Carolina/Georgia border, the Savannah River Site (SRS) was established in 1950 to produce radioactive materials, mainly plutonium and tritium, for nuclear weapons. Its first reactor went operational in 1953, and the basic plant was completed by 1956. In 1963, SRS received its first shipment of spent nuclear fuel for processing from off-site reactors. As production of new nuclear weapons slowed down and eventually stopped after arms control treaties were negotiated, the reactors at SRS were shut down and processing/recycling of existing nuclear materials became SRS’s main activity. Today, the SRS also provides storage of nuclear materials (including nuclear waste) and research into alternative energy sources with a nuclear angle, such as using the heat from nuclear reactors to separate water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms so it can be used as a fuel.

The SRS covers over 198,000 acres about 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia and 60 miles southwest of Columbia, South Carolina. The site is entirely in South Carolina, however, and the closest city is Aiken, South Carolina. SRS employs around 20,000 people and is the largest single employer in the state.

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One vital task SRS does is the recycling and “refreshment” of tritium, a radioactive material used in nuclear weapons that has a half-life of approximately 12 years. All nuclear weapons must have their tritium content periodically replaced, and SRS is the only American site for the production and recycling of tritium. The amount of fissionable nuclear material at SRS at any one time is classified, but it is believed there is usually about two tons of plutonium and over 20 tons of uranium in various forms stored at SRS.

Nuclear waste processed at SRS is often converted to glass through a process called “vitrification”; waste in glass form is more stable, compact, and easily handled (even liquid nuclear waste can be converted to glass). Over seven million tons of “vitrified” radioactive glass have been produced at SRS. There are still several million gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored in various tanks at SRS.

There are several classified projects underway at SRS. Several sources indicate research is ongoing into “mini-nukes” that could be transported inside ordinary luggage and carried by a single person. Research is also believed to be underway into the detection of such “mini-nukes,” techniques for the disabling of nuclear weapons, and techniques for tracking the presence and movement of nuclear materials.

What’s There: There were five reactors at SRS, although now all have been shut down and placed in standby status; all could be quickly reactivated if necessary. When new nuclear weapons were being produced, fissionable materials were separated in two facilities known as “canyons”; the F Canyon was used for plutonium and uranium production while the H Canyon produced only plutonium. Both canyons are now in standby mode.

The HB Line is a plutonium processing facility covering 28,000 square feet. Most of the operations here today involve recovery of plutonium from radioactive “scrap.” Tritium processing functions are carried on in buildings 232H (extraction and purification of tritium), 233H (loading and unloading of tritium), and 234H (shipping and receiving of tritium).

Liquid nuclear waste awaiting processing at SRS is stored in the F-Area and H-Area tank farms. There are a total of 45 tanks in the two farms. The Solid Waste Management Facility has burial pits and vaults to store solid radioactive waste, and the newer (opened in 1994) E Area has over 100 acres of burial vaults for solid nuclear waste. PUFF is a 55,000-square-foot facility now used to store plutonium “pits” taken from decommissioned nuclear weapons. A 40,000-square-foot incinerator facility is used to dispose of any waste which can be safely burned. Testing, laboratory, and research buildings are scattered throughout the SRS.

Getting a Look Inside: Prior to the September 11 attacks, the SRS conducted tours by appointment for groups of ten or more. Tours were suspended at the time this book was being written, but may resume in the future.

Unusual Fact: In 1950, Ellenton, South Carolina was indirectly destroyed by atomic energy.

Ellenton was inside what is now the SRS, and once the decision was made to build the SRS its residents were given an ultimatum: take the government’s offer for their property and move. More than 6000 people were evicted from the area, and several hundred homes and other buildings were leveled. Two graveyards were even relocated. In an attempt to compensate, the government established a community named New Ellenton near Aiken; it is located just before the intersection of Highways 19 and 278. New Ellenton never became a true community and is today a collection of small stores and a strip mall. Nothing was ever built inside the SRS on the site of Ellington, and recent photographs of the site show the crumbling brick and stone foundations of former homes and buildings as well as crumbling asphalt roads.

Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Ellington was a hand-painted sign one resident nailed to a telephone pole during the final days before eviction. “It is hard to understand why our town must be destroyed,” it read, “to make a bomb that will destroy someone else’s town that they love as much as we love ours. But we feel that they picked not just the best spot in the US, but in the world. We love these dear hearts and gentle people who live in our Home Town.”

Getting There: From Interstate 20, take exit 18 toward Aiken. The exit road turns into Highway 19 (Whiskey Road); follow it for approximately 15 miles to the intersection with Highway 278. After crossing the intersection, turn right on Savannah River Site Road 1 and take it to the entrance. Unless you are part of a tour or are otherwise invited to enter, you will not be able to enter the site. Highway 278 runs through the SRS, but its use by the public is restricted (although this fact is not made clear on some road maps and atlases) and you should not attempt to drive through the SRS on this road.

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