Fuel assemblies from NS Savannah to be reprocessed for commercial reactor
By Bill Murphy
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It was meant to light the way toward a brave new world of oceangoing commerce: Proud freighters ploughing the seas as their nuclear reactors silently, cleanly, and efficiently converted water to steam to turn banks of mighty turbines.
That was the vision embodied by the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear cargo ship ever built. Among maritime history buffs, Savannah has assumed legendary status. A little piece of the legend rubbed off at Sandia and stayed here for more than two decades. More on the Sandia connection in a moment, but first some background.
'Atoms for Peace' showcase
The Savannah -- a showcase for the Eisenhower Administration's "Atoms for Peace" initiative -- was christened in 1959 by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. The ship proved to be a technically brilliant but commercially unviable exercise.
On the positive side of the ledger, Savannah steamed more than 450,000 miles from 1959 to 1971. In her five years of cargo operation (1965-1970, following several years of at-sea shakedown tests), she generated some $12 million in revenue -- real money back then. The 163 pounds of uranium she consumed is estimated to have provided the equivalent power of nearly 29 million gallons of fuel oil. She was a wonder of the sea lanes, not surprising given that this was the era when Detroit was toying with the idea of nuclear-powered concept cars and aircraft makers were designing atomic planes. In a day when nuclear power was synonymous with the highest of high technology, some 1.4 million people visited Savannah at her ports of call. She was quite a goodwill ambassador.
Too expensive to operate
There was a downside to the Savannah story, though. In commerce, the bottom line is the bottom line, and on those terms, Savannah just didn't measure up. She required a crew of more than 100 highly trained sailors, including nuclear technologists and engineers. Comparable conventional ships required only 20 to 30 hands. The death knell for the Savannah -- and for commercial nuclear shipping -- came when the DoD, a major customer of US-flagged shipping, inevitably and appropriately concluded that oil-fired freighters were more cost-effective than nuclear ships. The Savannah was deactivated in 1971 and is now moored (without her reactor) at the Patriots' Point National Maritime Museum in South Carolina.
Though Savannah no longer lights the wine-dark sea, her name will shine in lights for years to come -- literally. And that's where Sandia comes in.
As part of the NS Savannah program, two spare reactor cores were manufactured for refuelings that never occurred. After the ship's decommissioning, those spare cores -- each containing 32 fuel assemblies -- were made available to DOE and NRC facilities for research and development purposes. Sandia's Richard Yoshimura (6341) requested ten assemblies be provided to the Labs for fuel transportation studies. One of the assemblies was used for an impact test and was then returned to the Manzano storage area along with the other nine assemblies. And there they sat at Manzano for a couple of decades. (Each of the assemblies, by the way, was made up of 117 stainless steel fuel rods containing uranium oxide pellets.)
Fast forward to the mid-1990s: The Cold War was over and the DOE weapons complex was looking at ways to divest itself of nuclear materials. In an inventory of materials, the Savannah stuff loomed pretty large. At Sandia, John Sichler (2105), who was then Sandia's Site Nuclear Materials Representative, in early 1996 began looking for viable ways to get the Savannah fuel out of Sandia's hands. A number of options were considered and rejected before -- voila! -- a solution was found. In an October 1997 deal, DOE/Albuquerque and the Tennessee Valley Authority agreed that the fuel would be sent to Framatome-Cogema Fuels (FCF) in Lynchburg for refabrication and ultimate use in one of TVA's nuclear power plants.
Wanted: 52 shipping containers
That agreement led to a sort of reverse "all dressed up and no place to go" situation. In this case, the fuel had a place to go -- TVA via Lynchburg, Va. But the fuel wasn't all dressed up: suitable shipping containers needed to be found.
Regarding the containers, two concerns quickly became apparent. First, all commercially available, NRC-licensed shipping containers for shipping intact fuel assemblies were certified for contemporary, commercial nuclear fuel. Second, while some commercially available, NRC-licensed fuel shipping containers are legal for shipping loose fuel rods, none were certified for the particular geometry of the Savannah fuel rods. But, as Jack Jackson, who took over from John Sichler at Site Nuclear Materials Rep in early 1998, put it: "Some things are meant to be."
First, some good legwork by Cindy Kajder (10201) and Ken Reil (6423) led to the discovery that a certain DOT-approved 110-gallon container -- the DOT 6M -- would pass regulatory muster for shipping loose fuel rods. The good news was, Sandia had about 35 of the containers on hand. The bad news was that Sandia might need as many as 52 of the containers to ship the Savannah fuel assemblies to Lynchburg. Where in the world would the Labs find 17 of these unusual containers?
The residue of design
Well, as Branch Rickey, the famed Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers general manger, once said, "Luck is the residue of design." Sandia got lucky.
"Out of the blue," Jack recalls, "we got a phone from Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. They asked if we had a need for up to 20 DOT 6M containers." Yes. The company sent 20 of the containers to Sandia.
While some members of this ad hoc team were scrambling to line up shipping containers, others were making arrangements to move the ten Savannah fuel assemblies down from the Manzano bunkers to the Bldg. 6597 high bay in Tech Area 5. There, they would be disassembled and loaded into the shipping containers. Participating organizations in this phase were Logistics, Radiation Protection, Material Handling, and Safeguards and Security.
Still others, primarily in the Nuclear Energy Technology Center (6400), were developing the Preliminary Hazard Screen, Hazard Assessment, Criticality Safety Assessment, and Operating Procedures necessary for the disassembly and repackaging of the ten Savannah fuel assemblies
. Let there be lights
It turned out that the disassembled assemblies required not 52 but just 41 containers. The 2.2 metric tons of nuclear material was loaded onto a commercial 18-wheeler and shipped last fall to Lynchburg for reprocessing.
"The teamwork and the organization that was involved in this operation, I mean it was remarkable," recalls Arvil Rhinehart of Procurement and Logistics Center 10200. The Center is responsible for managing the logistics, regulations, and compliance issues associated with shipping nuclear materials.
"I never had so many people so willing to go out of their way to get the information, to double-check, to certify, stay late, to get this going so that we could get the shipment off. When that truck went out, I was proud of Sandia."
So ends the NS Savannah saga -- at least Sandia's little piece of it.
"We were able to get rid of some materials we didn't want to store," says Jack Jackson, "and the people in the Southeast will get lights and electricity. I think it's a nice end to the story."
Last modified: April 2, 1999
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