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DOE memos: NNSA considers taking over SRS, relocating tritium mission

July 14, 2018

The National Nuclear Security Administration is considering making sweeping changes at the Savannah River Site following a June 7 federal court injunction that further entrenched the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project.

In a June 29 internal memo, ultimately obtained by the Aiken Standard, NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty told the Savannah River Field Office manager her agency is commissioning a working group to study several Site-specific shakeups.

Those potential changes include the NNSA becoming SRS’s “landlord,” issuing separate contracts for “all mission related activities” at SRS and relocating the SRS tritium mission, according to the memo.

The breakdown

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management is currently the SRS landlord. SRS is an active cleanup and remediation site.

A NNSA takeover would make DOE Environmental Management a tenant, according to the memo.

The NNSA, a semiautonomous DOE agency in charge of the nation’s nuclear complex, would also assume control of the Savannah River National Laboratory, according to the memo.

The separate contracts option keeps DOE Environmental Management at the top of the SRS food chain.

The tritium relocation approach would open up facilities and space for future NNSA defense missions at the Site, which have already been publicly teased.

Moving the tritium operation would not be easy, though, both fiscally and physically.

Tritium is a key hydrogen isotope used in nuclear weapons.

An initial report on the options is expected within 90 days. A final briefing will happen no later than Dec. 14, according to Gordon-Hagerty.

Reinforcing response

On July 3, DOE Environmental Management leader Anne Marie White responded to the NNSA memo through DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar.

The response – another letter obtained by the Aiken Standard – describes SRS as a “unique” site while also noting White’s department already, albeit informally, began a review similar to that of the NNSA’s.

White, in the response, calls for NNSA and DOE Environmental Management efforts to be “integrated.”

“I believe this is an opportunity to better focus both of our offices’ missions,” White wrote. “I look forward to working together.”

Gordon-Hagerty’s memo comes in direct response to a U.S. district court ruling that vacated a partial stop work order at MOX and enjoined a full-blown halt earlier commanded by U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

MOX is a roughly 70 percent finished facility at SRS. Once complete, MOX is designed to transform weapons-grade plutonium – at least 34 metric tons of it – into nuclear fuel.

The DOE and the NNSA have for several years now attempted to kill the MOX project, and on May 10, in conjunction with Perry’s order, the NNSA and the U.S. Department of Defense recommended reconfiguring MOX for a longterm plutonium pit production mission.

Plutonium pits are grapefruit-sized nuclear weapon cores, often referred to as triggers.

The NNSA is under direct orders to produce 80 pits per year by 2030 – a challenging task and deadline, according to several other DOE and NNSA documents.

In her memo, Gordon-Hagerty argued the pro-MOX injunction puts a full-stop on NNSA’s pit production efforts and imperils the agency’s goals.

As a result, she continued, “NNSA must reevaluate the viability to execute enduring missions at the Savannah River Site.”

“As administrator, I must consider how to best position the NNSA nuclear security enterprise for the future to safeguard the missions of the NNSA in an [sic] complex environment that is impacted by a number of significant challenges…” Gordon-Hagerty wrote.

Local feedback

Following Gordon-Hagerty’s visit to SRS in March, state Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, sent the chief a letter.

In it, Young wrote of his support of NNSA’s landlord takeover.

“As this change is reviewed, please consider the following,” Young wrote, going on to list seven defense- and remediation-related reasons.

“By establishing SRS as an NNSA site, SRS’s talented workforce and their tradition of excellence in safety, security and productivity can smoothly transition from cleanup and become fully focused on the important and enduring needs that underpin our nation’s security,” Young wrote.

On Wednesday, Young said he stands by what he wrote, but hopes the tritium relocation option is not seriously pursued.

State Rep. Bill Taylor, another Aiken Republican, said the NNSA would “likely be a better landlord” for SRS because the DOE is “looked on with skepticism on Capitol Hill.”

“A change in oversight would allow DOE to focus primarily on nuclear cleanup and energy issues,” Taylor said.