The Savannah River Site (SRS) processes and stores nuclear materials in support of national defense efforts. SRS covers 310 square miles that border the Savannah River and encompass parts of Aiken, Barnwell, and Allendale Counties. Owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), it has been operated since 1989 by Westinghouse Savannah River Company. In 2002 SRS had a budget of nearly $1.3 billion and employed about 13,800 people.
Following World War II, the federal government was interested in establishing sites for the creation of nuclear weapons. SRS was selected from an initial list of over one hundred potential sites in eighteen states as a facility to produce materials for nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. The materials produced at SRS would then be shipped to other locations where the actual weapons were manufactured. The site was chosen in 1950, and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) asked E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company to design, construct, and manage the facility. Construction began on February 1, 1951, and the heavy water plant began operation on August 17, 1952. Construction was fully complete in 1956. Because of security concerns, SRS was protected by U.S. Army anti-aircraft battalions from 1955 to 1959.
The construction of the plant precipitated two major population shifts. First, workers moved to South Carolina to construct and operate the plant. Building the plant required 35,000 workers, who came from across the country. After construction, duPont employees arrived to manage the SRS operations. The nearby town of Aiken became inundated with this influx of new workers. Although the workers overwhelmed public services and drove off some of the visitors who used Aiken as a winter colony, the construction project put about $1 million per day into the area’s economy.
The second demographic shift affected the six thousand residents of several small communities, including Ellenton and Dunbarton, which were located in the area to be taken over by SRS. For security and safety reasons, these townspeople were required to leave by March 1, 1952, only fifteen months after the AEC’s announcement that the SRS would be built. The government appraised the value of homes, farms, and other real estate of Ellenton and Dunbarton; owners received government payment for their properties but no assistance in finding new homes and relocating. The federal government played no role in designing or creating a government town to serve the needs of residents, as they had with other nuclear projects at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford Washington. Hardest hit were renters, who received no compensation at all but still had the cost and inconvenience of the mandatory and permanent evacuation. Many of these displaced residents moved just north of the plant site and formed a new community called New Ellenton.
During the 1950s five reactors were built, and SRS began to produce nuclear materials, primarily tritium and plutonium-239. Radioactive materials were moved from the reactors to one of two chemical separations plants, known as “canyons,” where the highly refined nuclear products of tritium and plutonium were chemically separated from waste by-products. SRS produced about thirty-six metric tons of plutonium (along with its accompanying nuclear waste by-products) from 1953 to 1988, at which time the K, L, and P reactors were shut down. In 1988 DuPont notified the DOE that it would cease operating and managing the site. In 1989 SRS was officially placed on the National Priority List (the Environmental Protection Agency’s [EPA] Superfund List) and became regulated by the EPA.
Through these changes SRS remained a primary DOE site. SRS’s work with tritium was crucial since tritium, with a half-life of 12.5 years, must be replenished constantly in the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. SRS also focused on the disposition of legacy materials, a euphemism for radioactive wastes. Spent nuclear fuel primarily from the site’s production reactors was stored at SRS in water-filled concrete basins, awaiting processing. SRS had two processing (separations) canyons, F canyon and H canyon, which stabilized and managed most of the remaining inventory of plutonium-bearing materials at SRS. In 2000 there was a public announcement that SRS would be the site for three new plutonium missions: a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, a pit disassembly and conversion facility, and a plutonium immobilization facility. In 2002 F canyon was shut down after completing its last production run to process legacy materials.
Ecologically rich in rare species of flora and fauna, SRS operates an environmental remediation program. Restoration of this ecology is essential as SRS is home to the bald eagle and the red-cockaded woodpecker and is visited by the peregrine falcon and the wood stork, all of which are endangered species. Alligators, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, otters, and short-nosed sturgeon also find their homes at SRS. As of March 2002, 340 of 500 acres had been remediated. Although more than four billion gallons of groundwater had been treated and about one million pounds of solvents removed, the cleanup process was expected to take decades at a dollar cost that could not be accurately estimated.
Brooks, Richard David, and David Colin Crass. A Desperate Poor Country: History and Settlement Patterning on the Savannah River Site, Aiken and Barnwell Counties, South Carolina. Columbia: Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 1991.
Browder, Tonya, David Colin Crass, and Richard David Brooks. “Oral History at the Savannah River Site.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1994): 138–42.
Farmer, James O., Jr. “A Collision of Cultures: Aiken, South Carolina, Meets the Nuclear Age.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1995): 40–49.
Mori, Mark, and Susan Robinson. Building Bombs. Oakland, Calif.: The Video Project, 1989. Videocassette.
Reed, Mary Beth, et al. Savannah River Site at Fifty. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Energy, 2002.