While the Savannah River Site celebrates its 70th anniversary, it is a time to reflect on the government complex’s major economic impact locally over the years and its missions to first provide nuclear materials for weapons during the Cold War and then to make sure the resulting waste was disposed of safely.
Also making up an important part of that history are the contributions of thousands upon thousands of people who have worked there, ranging from menial laborers to brilliant scientists with doctorates from the nation’s best universities.
Following are some of their stories.
Cold War patriot
After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Richard Johnson sought employment in 1953 at what then was known as the Savannah River Plant.
The opportunities there for African Americans like himself were limited.
“There were only two occupations that they would hire you in – in traffic and transportation as a laborer or in the service department as a janitor,” Johnson said.
He became a janitor and also furthered his education while continuing to perform his duties.
Because of pressure by the NAACP on the government about discrimination, Johnson believes he was able to get a better job.
“That’s why I was transferred from the service department to the laboratory,” he said.
Johnson worked on many projects, including one involving food irradiation and another that focused on gasohol.
When he retired after a 40-year career, Johnson was a senior technical analyst.
And he was proud of his efforts.
“I thought we were making a contribution to the overall safety of the country,” he said. “Everybody had the same goal. We were working to defeat communism, to keep communism at bay.”
Walt Kubilius came to SRS in 1992 after a stint in the mining industry.
“I was hired as a geochemist,” he said. “I guess the theme of my career was the various ways to keep members of the public safe from radioactive contamination. Specifically, I worked as a characterization geologist for finding and addressing contamination in soil and groundwater.”
Kubilius arrived at SRS about six months before the last of its five operating nuclear reactors was shut down.
“I led a team that did predictions on how radioactive contamination would leak from a decommissioned nuclear reactor under the various possible scenarios of how it was decommissioned,” he said. “The scenarios were proposed by an engineering group, and I evaluated those as far as which ones would result in unacceptable contamination of the environment and which ones would be better.”
Kubilius retired in 2019, but he has done some consulting work this year.
“I advised a foreign government on decommissioning their nuclear reactors,” he said. “That was extremely neat.”
Carol Jantzen was one of only three women in her workplace in 1982 after she accepted a job as a glass chemist at the Savannah River Plant, which became known as SRS seven years later.
“There was only one ladies' room in the whole building,” Jantzen said.
But she thrived in the male-dominated environment and became a research leader.
Jantzen developed process models that were used to run the Defense Waste Processing Facility, which converts radioactive liquid waste into a solid glass form that is suitable for long-term storage and disposal.
“You had to be 95% confident that a model would work, and there were four of them,” Jantzen said. “The fact that they worked and they’ve worked for more than 20 years is a real feather in my cap.”
Her role in helping to keep the environment safe was fulfilling for Jantzen, who was a consulting scientist when she retired in 2019.
“I felt that radioactive waste was a legacy problem that was left to us from the previous generation,” she said. "We’re using people like me, in my generation, to maximize cleanup so that we don’t leave it for future generations.”
Keeper of history
“I was pulled and plugged a lot of times, moved from one area to another to facilitate a need,” said Paul Sauerborn of his career at SRS. “It gave me the ability to try different challenges, which I enjoyed.”
Sauerborn worked at SRS for 31 years, beginning in 1981.
“I started as a performance tracker for DuPont construction, and then in 1989, when Westinghouse came on board (to succeed DuPont as the manager and operator of SRS), I filled in as an investment engineer,” he said. “From there, I spent time in both short-term and long-term planning for the site. Then, for the last 15 years, I was dealing with interface between the site and the environmental restoration group within the Citizens Advisory Board.”
Sauerborn also managed the historic preservation program for SRS.
Many of the artifacts in storage “are really, really big items,” Sauerborn said. “Others you can’t show to the public because they still have that security sensitivity, if you will.”
Among Sauerborn’s favorites are replicas created by engineers.
“Every time a building was put up at the site, they would build a model of it during the design phase that was hand-constructed,” he said. “They were all built by engineers to a small scale according to the plans that they saw."
“The models provided construction engineers with a three-dimensional look at how things were supposed to fit together,” Sauerborn continued. “When the operations people took over to run the facility, they had a model for where everything was and it became a teaching model for how to operate those areas.”
Fuel security specialist
Jim Marra kicked off his more than 20 years of employment at SRS in 1990 by working on a project that focused restarting shutdown nuclear reactors.
Then he concentrated on nuclear waste management and environmental cleanup.
“At the very end of my career, I was active in national security work,” Marra said. “We were looking at technologies to make fuel (for nuclear reactors) more proliferation-resistant, meaning that it couldn’t be used to make weapons.”
For Marra, there was always something interesting to do at SRS.
“The satisfaction of working out there for all those years was the number of great people I got to work with and the unbelievably diverse technologies and expertise that were out there.”
Marra’s first boss and mentor was the late Tom Rankin.
“One of the things he was a lead in developing was the plutonium heat sources for the deep space missions that were used by NASA and are still in use today,” Marra said. “In fact, the rover that is being sent to Mars right now is going to be powered, when it gets to Mars, using this technology.”
Manager and supervisor
Art Osborne moved from Virginia to the Aiken area in 1977.
“I came to SRS when it was still called the Savannah River Plant,’’ he said. “They were building a lot of double-walled waste tanks for liquid waste, and DuPont sent me down here to oversee the construction of those tanks.”
Osborne also was involved in starting up the first glass melter at the complex and figuring out how to turn radioactive waste sludge into slurry so it could be put into the melter.
“It pleased me to work, to really get a serious start, on cleaning up the legacy that we had from the excellent work that was done during the Cold War and continues to be done today,” he said.
In addition, Osborne ran an operations department, oversaw maintenance efforts and worked in quality assurance.
“My final couple of years I was kind of in general management,” he said. “I had an organization of people that reported on the work that was going on in the various departments and making sure it was meeting the Department of Energy’s requirements and the commitments that we had made to them.”
For a while, Osborne recalled, he was involved in a project that would have provided a new mission for the nuclear complex, but it ended up being scrubbed.
“The government thought they were having some problems with the contractor that was supplying nuclear fuel for submarines,” said Osborne, who retired in 2002. “They want SRS to build a kind of competing process, so I worked with the lab and developed a process for making nuclear fuel. About the time the site got it all started up, the government did what governments frequently do. They said, ‘Well, you know, we think the people in Tennessee are OK now, so never mind. Thanks for developing it and for building the facility and so forth. But now this other outfit has gotten things all fixed up.'”