Nuclear oversight board to discuss Savannah River safety concerns

April 12, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News
The DOE's Savannah River Site. (Photo: DOE)

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) is scheduled to visit the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina the week of May 8 to discuss ongoing safety concerns and the protection of the public and workforce, as well as the DOE’s effectiveness in addressing those concerns.

The topics at hand, which center on the issues related to SRS’s tritium production facilities and the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, were outlined in a March 29 letter to energy secretary Jennifer Granholm from DNFSB chair Joyce Connery.

An independent organization within the executive branch of the U.S. government, the DNFSB provides recommendations and advice to the president and the secretary of energy regarding public health and safety issues at DOE defense nuclear facilities.

2019 recommendations: In a 2019 report and recommendations to the DOE, the DNFSB listed its concerns regarding SRS tritium facilities, which include a number of defense nuclear buildings that are used for producing and storing tritium. In that report, the DNFSB claimed that, assuming a 50-year lifetime for the facilities, there is a probability of between 0.5 percent and 40 percent that that a fire could potentially release a large amount of tritium. “Such an event could lead to a significant number of potentially exposed individuals, posing a significant challenge to both SRS’s emergency management system and to local emergency and medical facilities,” the DNFSB reported.

The DOE, however, rejected the board’s 2019 recommendations, saying it would take a number of steps to increase safety, including the construction of a new Tritium Finishing Facility to replace the H-Area Old Manufacturing Facility. In her letter to Secretary Granholm, Connery noted that the DOE’s fiscal year 2024 budget request no longer includes funding for the Tritium Finishing Facility, calling into question the department’s efforts to address the board’s concerns.

Plutonium processing: in January 2022, the DNFSB notified the DOE of safety concerns with the conceptual design for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, including that the project assumes that facility workers can protect themselves from a plutonium release during certain accident scenarios.

Connery pointed out that SRS is experiencing a high turnover rate, with older, more experienced workers being replaced with staff who have little to no previous nuclear experience. “This reduction in the experience level of the workforce is important when the workers are expected to prevent accidents without accompanying credited safety controls or to perform mitigative or emergency response actions to reduce the radiological impacts to themselves and other workers inside the facility or residing in nearby facilities,” she wrote in the letter to Granholm.

Tritium release: The DNFSthe releaseerted the DOE in August 2022 about concerns regarding a release of about 1,000 curies of tritium from the stack of SRS’s H-Area New Manufacturing Facility earlier that year. According to the board, that release resulted in a small portion of the tritium being drawn back into the facility, potentially exposing facility workers to tritium in a scenario not analyzed in the DOE’s safety basis.

According to the DNFSB, the National Nuclear Security Administration told the board in November 2022 that it does not intend to perform any additional analyses or add additional safety controls to protect the facility workers from a tritium release. According to Connery, however, the board feels that such additional analyses and possible safety controls are warranted.

Letter to DOE-EM: The DNFSB also completed a review of the Savannah River National Laboratory safety basis, noting that several long-standing deficiencies identified by the board remain unresolved. The board’s concerns primarily involve the improper designation of specific administrative controls and the inappropriate classification of key fire protection equipment.

In a separate April 5 letter to William “Ike” White, senior advisor to the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, Connery requested a briefing to address the board’s concerns and any actions the DOE plans to take to address them.

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