New fuel storage needed at Savannah River Site



Savannah River Site will need more storage space to sustain a program to safeguard spent nuclear fuel recovered from foreign nations.

The 15,000 assemblies now stored at the site's heavily fortified L Area have filled more than 90 percent of the available space, said Dawn Gillis, the site's used fuel program manager, during a briefing Tuesday to the SRS Citizens Advisory Board.

The material is from both foreign and domestic research reactors and contains highly enriched uranium -- a critical ingredient of nuclear weapons.

Although available storage space is nearly full, the National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Threat Reduction Initiative will continue through 2019, with an additional 4,884 assemblies already identified for shipment to South Carolina.

Expansion would involve building more racks for the vertical storage tubes within the L Area complex, but would not require additional buildings.

The presence of the spent fuel in South Carolina has been controversial because there is currently no clear disposition path by which the material would leave the state.

When the program was created in 1996, the plan was to dispose of the material through a "melt and dilute" technology that was later put on hold because of high costs. A backup plan involved sending the material to H-Canyon, also at SRS, which has the capacity to process aluminum-clad fuels from research reactors.

In recent months, however, the Department of Energy announced a money-saving plan to scale down operations at H-Canyon and keep the facility in a "standby" mode that would halt the flow of materials sent there for processing. H-Canyon is the nation's sole remaining facility at which such fuels can be processed for disposal.

Although the spent fuel is likely to remain at the site longer than anticipated, it can be safely stored without risks to the environment or the public, said Pat McGuire, the site's assistant manager for nuclear material stabilization.

Savannah River National Laboratory recently completed a long-term storage capability study that concluded that the radioactive material could be stored for 50 additional years with proper maintenance and management.

Any future decisions about the disposition of the spent fuel at SRS could hinge on the recommendations of the DOE's Blue Ribbon Commission, appointed to evaluate the best strategies for nuclear waste disposal. A draft report from the committee is expected to be released Friday.