Jeff Duncan says Savannah River Site could help secure America's nuclear energy supplies
May 26—Could the Savannah River Site play a role in helping to secure American's energy supply?
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said recently the site located 20 miles south of Aiken could play multiple roles in securing America's energy supply including the reprocessing of commercial nuclear fuel and as the location of a small modular nuclear reactor.
Duncan, who chairs the Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he shared a vision with former Congressman Gresham Barrett of making the site an energy campus.
Barrett represented the Third Congressional District, the district Duncan currently represents, from 2003-2011. At the time he represented the district, a portion of Aiken County including the Savannah River Site were part of the district.
"You've got the expertise down there and the knowledge for nuclear as the nation moves toward advanced nuclear reactors, small modular nuclear reactors and the miniaturization of things and what advanced fuels might look like," Duncan said.
He added that he felt the site could become a location for repossessing commercial nuclear waste. Duncan said he considered commercial nuclear waste an asset that could meet a lot the nation's enriched uranium needs.
Enriched uranium has a higher percentage of the fissile uranium 235. Mined uranium is around 99.27%-99.28% uranium 238, 0.71%-0.72% uranium 235 with the remainder being uranium 234. The percentage of uranium 235 is increased through isotope separation.
Most reactors need enriched uranium to begin the nuclear reaction to generate power. Once the reaction begins, the uranium 238 — it's fertile, meaning it will begin to change into other elements both up and down the periodic table — begins to break down and generate heat which is converted to steam to generate power.
Once the uranium decays so far, it has to be removed from the nuclear reactor. Reprocessing is the process of taking that decayed uranium and adding more uranium 235 and 238 so the fuel can be used again in a nuclear reactor.
Duncan said reprocessing commercial nuclear waste would help end the country's reliance on Russia for enriched uranium.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported last summer the United States purchased around 14% of mined uranium and 28% of its enriched uranium from Russia.
Additionally, Kazakhstan is the the world's largest supplier of uranium — the country produced about 43% of the world's supply in 2022 — and that country ships most of its uranium through Russia.
Duncan said he would like for the site to be the location of a small modular nuclear reactor.
"We're going to try to propagate new missions out there while understanding they have a defense mission, as well," Duncan said. "I think the site's great for that."
The Savannah River Site is the nation's only supplier of tritium and, if current plans are followed through, will be one of two suppliers of plutonium pits for nuclear weapons.
Duncan added he would love to see workers involved in constructing two new reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant across the Savannah River come over to the site when they're done.
"We've got a great location there and it should be more utilized than what it's utilized with its ongoing missions," Duncan said.