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SRS crafting face coverings; national lab assessing means to clean N95 masks

SRS Sign, COVID-19 Projects

An entrance to the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile nuclear reserve south of Aiken and near New Ellenton.

The Savannah River Site and its Savannah River National Laboratory have undertaken a handful of projects to help the fight against the highly contagious novel coronavirus, including the mass fabrication of face coverings and shields.

Earlier this month, the Containment Fabrication Facility, which normally pumps out radiological containment huts and other devices, was converted to a mask plant, of sorts.

"Using industrial sewing machines and their fabrication skills," a U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson told the Aiken Standard, "a team of seven craft personnel began production."

More than 8,700 cloth face coverings and 215 face shields have been made to date.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year recommended wearing masks in public settings – like grocery stores and pharmacies – to stymie the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, whose department stewards the Savannah River Site, in April 10 guidance advised that "all individuals" – federal employees, contractors, visitors – wear face coverings when social distancing proves difficult.

Meantime, the Savannah River National Laboratory has designed a system that couples with breathing hoods and masks to completely "remove biological contaminants," the Energy Department spokesperson said. The system has "demonstrated that it kills bacteria and removes it from air with extremely high efficiency."

The national lab, overseen by Fluor-led Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, is also looking into chemical and electromagnetic radiation treatments to disinfect highly sought after N95 masks, critical to first responders and medical professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Donald Trump has publicly cited the Energy Department's efforts to combat and learn more about the 2019 coronavirus, including ventures at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in nearby Tennessee.

"SRS, like all DOE plants, labs and sites," the Energy Department spokesperson said, "provides information to DOE-HQ and they pass it, as appropriate, to the White House."

Ten cumulative cases of COVID-19 have been logged at the Savannah River Site, south of Aiken, as of April 24. Six SRS employees have recovered from coronavirus infection and have since returned to work, either in person or remotely.

The pandemic and related stay-at-home orders in South Carolina and Georgia pushed the nuclear-waste-and-weapons complex early this month into an essential mission-critical posture, which greatly reduced and prioritized work done there as well as the amount of people physically reporting for work.

Plans, though, are now in development for a step-by-step return to normal operations. Exactly what that entails – and when – is not immediately clear.

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