The Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina is activating its Infectious Disease Response Team to help navigate the COVID-19 crisis, the nuclear weapons and nuclear cleanup site said Wednesday.
The news broke just before the newspaper Politico reported that an employee at the Department of Energy’s Washington headquarters had tested positive for the virus.
The Savannah River Team, meanwhile, will operate around the clock and will hold “daily leadership calls” in an effort to limit potential impact of the novel coronavirus on the 310-square-mile, 11,000-employee federal installation.
“The Savannah River Site is fully operational,” according to the statement distributed from facility management to employees. “Currently, SRS has no cases of COVID-19.”
Savannah River Site is a former Cold War plutonium production complex. The DoE is now cleaning up the liquid waste left over from that mission, even as the agency’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) expands active nuclear weapons programs at the site.
NNSA already harvests tritium at Savannah River — the radioactive hydrogen isotope boosts the power of thermonuclear weapons, and all weapons in the U.S. stockpile need it — and is planning to produce fissile nuclear weapon cores called plutonium pits at the site by 2030.
While the Savannah River Site is employing telecommuting to the extent possible, “the important missions of SRS [such as nuclear cleanup and national defense] must continue and for much of our work, telework is simply not a viable option,” according to the statement. The memo does not specify which staff members are allowed to telecommute.
In addition to doing extra cleaning, SRS is putting contracts in place “to handle more extensive sanitizing [of buildings] should it be needed.”
The statement notes precautions that are now commonplace across the DoE weapons complex – encouraging handwashing and limiting the size of in-person meetings. Some sites are taking more extreme measures than others. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, for example, is transitioning to minimum safe operations and has barred almost all travel to and from the site in Alameda County. The lab is leading programs to modernize nuclear warheads for future air-launched cruise missiles and silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.