The 235-F Risk Reduction “Dream Team” at SRS: (back row, from left) Antonio Jenkins, Tim Smith, Pete Smith, Roy Jones, Michael Sims, Wayne Minton, Tony McCall, Ronnie Farmer, Debbie Coleman, Sylvester Palmer, (front row, from left) Franklin McKinnis, Jamellia Reid, Greg Hughes, Angela Steward, David Miller. Not pictured: Clem Campbell.
AIKEN, S.C. – When it came time to clean up a hazardous facility, EM’s management and operations contractor at the Savannah River Site (SRS) took a novel approach: assemble an elite, handpicked team of experienced professionals for the job.
As cleanup of the inactive Plutonium Fuel Form (PuFF) facility in Building 235-F enters its second year, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions’ risk reduction approach continues to bring success.
To lower risk of a fire, the team safely removed fixed combustibles, upgraded the fire detection system and de-energized unneeded electrical circuits. To remove materials from the cells and support material characterization, the team drains and cleans shield cell windows after their partial disassembly, installs lighting and mechanically isolates the cells.
Called the “Dream Team” by facility management, the 18 crew members were chosen primarily for their experience in handling radioactive materials, primarily in the SRS transuranic waste (TRU) campaign. TRU waste typically consists of protective clothing, tools, rags, equipment and miscellaneous items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium.
“We knew that we would be facing a lot of unknown challenges, and we needed a team who could handle them,” said Jeff Hasty, 235-F risk reduction manager. “In my 29 years of experience, this is the only handpicked crew I have seen.”
When the PuFF facility operated, workers created spheres and pellets from plutonium (Pu)-238 for the heat source in radiolytic thermal generators used to power deep space missions. The work left behind about 1,500 grams of Pu-238. Facility cleanup is challenging as workers face tight spaces with limited accessibility and fine Pu-238 particulate dust that is easily disturbed. The biggest health threat from plutonium is inhalation, so workers must work carefully to not stir up the dust.
“Some of us were asked if we would come to this project after TRU was over,” said Ronnie Farmer, 235-F risk reduction first line manager. “We said yes, but only on one condition: you let us get the people who we want for this job. We were looking for people with the right temperament and experience, and upper management let us pick the people we needed to do this job correctly and safely.”
235-F Risk Reduction Operator Antonio Jenkins looks on while fellow operator, Sylvester Palmer, practices using a tool in the 235-F mock-up facility.
Inside the PuFF facility are nine cells of thick concrete walls with shielded windows. Employees worked with Pu-238 using remote manipulators from outside the cell. Material entered the facility in one cell, then moved to the others where the spheres and pellets were created.
Teamwork and self-motivation are the hallmarks of the team’s success.
“If you sit back and watch them, they all know each other’s job and work together so well, it is sometimes hard to tell who is who,” said Hasty. “They are all willing to pitch in for the job.”
The team is committed to the SRS standard of safety excellence. Its members regularly pause work to reassess situations and determine safer alternatives.
Radiological Protection Department Inspector Pete Smith recalled when team members struggled to remove a 550-pound cell window.
“We called a time out, got the rigging supervisor, and figured out the best and safest way to complete the job,” he said.
The PuFF facility cleanup is scheduled for completion in 2021. Pu-238 and contaminated equipment removed from the facility will be safely packaged and stored for eventual shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for permanent disposal.
“The fact is that the combination of experience, respect, management support, humor and comradery is what makes this team great,” said Hasty. “They care about each other and it shows.”