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Savannah River Site developing 'phased approach' to return to normal operations

Savannah River Site (copy) (copy)

An aerial view of the Savannah River Site and, in the distance, Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Georgia.

Planning is underway to step-by-step return operations at the Savannah River Site to normal, news that roughly coincides with President Donald Trump's Opening Up America Again agenda and the easing of some coronavirus-related restrictions in South Carolina and Georgia.

The federal nuclear-waste-and-weapons complex south of Aiken and near New Ellenton, though, is not yet ready to pivot away from its currently held essential mission-critical posture, which dramatically reduced and prioritized the volume of work done there as well as the amount of people who physically report for work on site (fewer than 2,500).

Tritium operations, storage of nuclear materials at places like K and L areas, necessary security, and defense missions at the Savannah River National Laboratory, among other ventures, continue. Plutonium and spent nuclear fuel are kept at K and L areas, respectively.

An exact timeline or road map for the return to normal was not immediately available.

Ten cumulative cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, were confirmed at the site as of Friday morning. The two most recent cases were logged Thursday, a U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson said in a statement.

Six Savannah River Site workers have recovered from coronavirus infection and have since returned to work, either in person or remotely, the spokesperson said. The last update came April 16, when four people were cleared.

Approximately 10,000 people are employed at SRS, a significant economic engine for the Palmetto and Peach states. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's stay-at-home order was cited when the site contracted to essential mission-critical operations earlier this month.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 150 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the South Carolina counties surrounding the Savannah River Site. Six related deaths have been recorded in Aiken County.

To combat the spread of the 2019 coronavirus, which emerged in China months ago, the Savannah River Site has, among other things, instituted a chemical cleaning, sanitization and temperature check regimen. Cloth masks are also allowed in situations that do not permit for proper social distancing, the Energy Department spokesperson has said, in alignment with earlier guidance announced by Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette.

In a public message Friday, Brouillette described contemporary circumstances – the global coronavirus crisis – as "difficult."

"I appreciate all you are doing for our nation during these challenging times," the secretary continued, "and know we will get through them together."

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