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Radioactive operations at Salt Waste Processing Facility can begin, DOE says

SWPF, aerial, CD4

An aerial look at the Salt Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site, south of Aiken.

The U.S. Department of Energy on Monday authorized radioactive, or so-called hot, operations to begin at the Salt Waste Processing Facility, a much-anticipated green light that marks a bound toward greater cleanup of nuclear waste at the Savannah River Site.

The Energy Department's approval earlier this week of Critical Decision-4 signals the completion of the multibillion-dollar Parsons project as well as a shift toward actual work, which is on track to begin later this year.

William "Ike" White, the leader of Environmental Management, the Energy Department's nuclear cleanup office, hailed the milestone as a "considerable achievement." Michael Budney, the Savannah River Site manager, likened the behemoth facility to the final piece of an intricate puzzle. He has previously said it's the key to the entire liquid-waste mission.

Startup of the Salt Waste Processing Facility was included in Environmental Management's list of 2020 priorities.

The plant is designed as a nuclear waste workhorse; it's meant to process annually millions of gallons of waste currently stored at the Savannah River Site. The liquid waste there – south of Aiken and near New Ellenton and Jackson – has been described as the single largest environmental threat the Palmetto State faces.

Salt waste occupies a vast majority of tank space at SRS. Safely getting rid of it, then, is of paramount importance.

"The innovations of SWPF will forever change how we remediate nuclear waste and ensure that a cleaner, more sustainable and environmentally sensitive world is possible for the future," Parsons CEO Chuck Harrington said Tuesday. Parsons was nearly two decades ago selected to design, build, commission and operate the facility in the short term.

Earlier this year, the Energy Department investigated how the coronavirus crisis was affecting various nuclear cleanup endeavors, including the Salt Waste Processing Facility. The spread of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, continues to hamstring a return to normal at the Savannah River Site.

The department's nod arrives months ahead of a hard January 2021 deadline, years after construction concluded and on the heels of readiness tests and other probing. The broader project has had hiccups, and at one point suffered what was described as a one-year delay because of a mutually agreed to replacement of parts.

In late 2019, Savannah River Site deputy manager Thomas Johnson Jr. said the Salt Waste Processing Facility faced and overcame "a lot of challenges over the years." In the year prior, Parsons was issued an attention-grabbing notice of concern, detailing perceived failures.

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