Nuclear warhead cores production brings expansion, jobs to Savannah River Site

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Dave Olson, Executive Vice President for National Nuclear Security Administration Capital Projects, gives updates on the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce business lunch at SRP Park in North Augusta on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.
Dave Olson, Executive Vice President for National Nuclear Security Administration Capital Projects, gives updates on the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce business lunch at SRP Park in North Augusta on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

In a long-planned effort, the Savannah River Site is retrofitting and expanding a building to produce plutonium pits, the core of a nuclear warhead.

It's one of three capital projects, and the first time in 30 years it will be doing that many projects at one time. The new developments are estimated to bring thousands of employees and millions of dollars of investment for the projects.

On Wednesday, Dave Olson, executive vice president for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, which manages the site, gave an update to the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce on new projects. In addition to producing plutonium pits, the site is expanding the capacity to turn surplus plutonium into a waste product that can be shipped for disposal, and also replacing two old buildings used in the production of tritium to update tritium production.

"(The National Nuclear Security Administration) is looking at Savannah River Site with its long standing production operation history to do the bulk of that mission," Olson said. "Los Alamos (National Laboratory) is going to start making them now, we're about 8-10 years away from that point."

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The goal is to eventually produce a total of 80 pits a year between Savannah River and Los Alamos for the NNSA, which manages nuclear stockpiles and deterrence. Pits deteriorate over time and need to be replaced.

Dave Olson, Executive Vice President for National Nuclear Security Administration Capital Projects, gives updates on the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce business lunch at SRP Park in North Augusta on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.
Dave Olson, Executive Vice President for National Nuclear Security Administration Capital Projects, gives updates on the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce business lunch at SRP Park in North Augusta on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

All three projects have had the conceptual design approved. The plutonium waste project design is being finalized and they have begun buying some materials, while the tritium project will probably take another year and a half to two years to finalize the plans. In fiscal year 2021, $341 million was spent on the three projects, and fiscal year 2022 should see an investment of $600 million.

"Along with the design and construction of that set of facilities comes a workforce that could measure at 6,000," Olson said. "Lot of opportunities for electricians, pipefitters, machinists and welders and the like in the '24, '25, '26 timeframe."

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The Savannah River Site is looking to 15 nearby states, as well as working with local universities on training programs for future nuclear workers. They may also bring in some machinists from the northeast who have specialized machinist skills from the automotive industry. In 2019, Augusta Technical College, Augusta University and other local colleges received funding from the Department of Energy to develop the region's nuclear workforce.

"We're looking to the CSRA to fill our needs first," Olson said. "We're also going to take advantage of and utilize fully the subcontracting community, not just from the CSRA but also the larger region as need be for equipment, for engineering services, payroll, you name it."

Many of the jobs will be temporary, but after 2030 there will likely be 1,800 more employees at the site to work the expanded facilities.

"Two of the three major elements that go into a nuclear weapon, radioactive wise, are tritium, plutonium, uranium," Olson said. "Tritium and plutonium will be made at the Savannah River Site."

Moving pit production to SRS has been a goal of local governments and businesses for years. The move was endorsed by the North Augusta City Council in 2018, following similar resolutions from Aiken County and the City of Aiken.

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Nuclear waste, warhead projects at SRS will expand jobs, investment

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