National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty spent two days in South Carolina this week, on Thursday meeting with Gov. Henry McMaster and on Friday touring the Savannah River Site and the namesake museum in downtown Aiken.
Gordon-Hagerty visited the site's K-Area – a retrofitted reactor complex home to her agency's Surplus Plutonium Disposition project, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility alternative – as well as the tritium operations and the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, a proposed production hub for plutonium pits, or nuclear weapon cores.
Tritium is a hydrogen isotope used to magnify nuclear weapon power.
At both the Savannah River Site and the Laurens Street museum, Gordon-Hagerty was accompanied by U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Rick Allen, South Carolina and Georgia Republicans, respectively, who have advocated for site spending and enduring missions. Her entourage also included Nicole Nelson-Jean, the National Nuclear Security Administration's manager at SRS.
While at the site, Gordon-Hagerty took time to meet with and address employees.
The Savannah River Site earlier this year – in reaction to the novel coronavirus crisis and stay-at-home orders issued in the Palmetto and Peach states – pivoted to essential mission-critical operations exclusively. That posture dramatically reduced the number of people on site as well as the volume of work done there.
Teleworking boomed, and national defense missions, the National Nuclear Security Administration's portfolio, were prioritized and continued.
Gordon-Hagerty said the site's workforce is "doing phenomenally" and has accomplished much in such uncertain times. Her Friday message to the workers, she explained, was "to thank them for all the wonderful work they do and for what they're doing for our nation's national security."
The community surrounding the Savannah River Site, which neighbors New Ellenton, Jackson and Snelling, has been incredibly supportive, engaging and open, Gordon-Hagerty emphasized.
"They believe in what we're doing. They understand the importance of our national security missions," the administrator continued. "And I want to thank them. I want to thank the people from Aiken, from North Augusta, Augusta across the river, everything."
The Savannah River Site, a Cold War production site once masked in mystery, has for decades been a major economic engine for both South Carolina and Georgia. Roughly 11,000 people, including thousands of Georgians, are employed at the site. (The state line is a half-hour's drive west from downtown Aiken.)
Gordon-Hagerty's visit coincides with the 70th anniversary of SRS and the 20th formal anniversary of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Celebrations and larger events were planned for the milestones, but the proliferation of COVID-19, the disease caused by the highly contagious coronavirus, has so far quashed them.
As of Friday morning, 87 cumulative cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the Savannah River Site workforce. More than two dozen cases were active as of the end of the week.
Gordon-Hagerty heads to Los Alamos National Laboratory, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, next week. A stop at PF-4, a plutonium facility, is planned, she mentioned.
The Energy Department oversees both the Savannah River Site and Los Alamos.