Dr. Jeff Griffin: Forum on Energy Q&A

In the days after the Fukushima event, Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) — a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory that specializes in the treatment, cleanup and environmental remediation of nuclear waste — was directly engaged with the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Response Team to provide information and support to Japan. Dr. Jeff Griffin, Associate Laboratory Director for Environmental Stewardship at SRNL, spoke recently with Forum on Energy about the field of environmental cleanup, SRNL’s experience in cleanup and remediation, and his experience recently hosting a delegation from TEPCO.

Forum on Energy: How has SRNL built experience and expertise in the cleanup and remediation of nuclear waste and materials?

Dr. Griffin: SRNL has a longstanding history of providing technical solutions to the Savannah River Site. Well before SRNL became a National Laboratory, we made a natural extension from providing technical leadership for the development and deployment of nuclear processes on the site to providing the same level of technical leadership for all aspects of the site remediation and cleanup efforts. We were able to take our decades of nuclear experience and our huge base of processing knowledge, and immediately apply it to the new challenges facing the site; developing innovative remediation strategies, developing and validating processes, and supporting regulatory discussions. SRNL’s leadership and capabilities in these areas have helped the Savannah River Site make significant progress in addressing legacy environmental cleanup issues from the Cold War. It certainly helped that many of the critical physical resources were already in place, such as our Shielded Cells and radioactive material laboratories, as were the bright minds needed to invent ideas for dealing with these issues. 

Being so tightly integrated with the site from production to cleanup built the expertise and capabilities at SRNL that are now applied in a much broader capacity across the DOE cleanup sites. We now routinely support the Hanford site and the Portsmouth and Paducah sites, among others, and are even providing our experience to efforts outside beyond DOE such as the daunting cleanup task facing the citizens of Japan. 

We have spent decades building experience and expertise in the cleanup of SRS [Savannah River Site] waste, and are applying the same critical thinking and technology solutions to nuclear material cleanup efforts that span the globe.

Forum on Energy: What do you view as SRNL’s greatest success in the field of environmental cleanup?

Dr. Griffin: There are several significant SRNL achievements in cleanup. Perhaps the most notable, and enduring, is our development of the technical baseline for the only operating high level waste vitrification facility in the United States. Among other things, processing waste through the SRS Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF) is what allows SRS to close 50-year-old waste tanks. Even today, SRNL qualifies each batch of waste for vitrification in DWPF by performing each of the critical process steps on a small scale using actual waste.

On sheer scale, DWPF rises to the top of our successes — but again, it is the know-how and ingenuity that developed the technical baseline for DWPF being applied to other areas and aspects of cleanup that continue to make us successful today, both at SRS and beyond. For example, we used our experience and expertise in cementitious materials to develop the specialized grouts that enabled the recent successful in-situ decommissioning of old production reactors at the Savannah River Site. And, today, we are utilizing our experience and expertise derived from the DWPF successes to support the larger, more complex vitrification facility that is being constructed at the Hanford site. There are many other examples like these. 

The other great achievement for SRNL was being named the DOE Environmental Management [EM] laboratory. Shortly after being named a National Laboratory, we were named the EM National Laboratory in recognition of our ability to successfully bring concepts and ideas from the bench-top to deployable technologies for cleanup and remediation. 

Forum on Energy: What are your current priorities as Associate Laboratory Director for Environmental Stewardship?

Dr. Griffin: My current priority is to continue to expand our cleanup expertise and capabilities at SRNL to address critical environmental cleanup challenges in the U.S. and around the globe. SRNL has an exceptional track record in developing and deploying solutions to environmental cleanup problems, whether they involve the stabilization of nuclear waste, remediation of groundwater and soil, or strategies and technologies needed to decommission and disposition nuclear facilities. I believe that we can extend our capabilities and technologies to address environmental cleanup challenges across the nation and the world. I also believe that, in addressing these challenges, we will learn new approaches, and develop and deploy new technologies that will help us in addressing our continued critical work in the DOE-EM mission. 

Forum on Energy: How can SRNL contribute to the ongoing cleanup of the Fukushima site and its surrounding environs?

Dr. Griffin: In a very short period of time, the devastating results of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 at Fukushima created an environmental challenge on the scale of the U.S. nuclear waste complex, which evolved over a sixty year period. This is an overwhelming event that has created some exceptionally complex response and remediation challenges. SRNL has expertise and capabilities that are directly applicable to these challenges, and we have a track record of laboratory engagement that carries research and technology to successful deployment. Collectively, we have the opportunity to span gaps in knowledge and experience to help Japan move quickly to reestablishing communities and vibrancy in the Fukushima and surrounding prefectures.

Forum on Energy: SRNL recently hosted a delegation from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). What did you learn from that exchange? How do you hope to work with TEPCO moving forward?

Dr. Griffin: First, I was humbled. I had, of course, read the articles and followed the progress on shutting down the reactors, but did not fully appreciate the honor and sacrifice displayed in the hours following the earthquake and tsunami. I was further humbled by the magnitude of the cleanup challenges, both at the reactor site and the surrounding areas – but was impressed by the significant progress that Japan has made in only about twelve months. 

TEPCO seems interested in our experience and ideas, and I think we can help. We can support initial efforts to review their plans and assumptions for the longer term cleanup challenges, while also working with them to identify those areas where we can provide direct technical solutions. As part of our commitment to provide the broadest possible set of capabilities and expertise, we have also established a partnership with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for our proposed work with TEPCO. This partnership will provide streamlined access to the expertise and technologies of both laboratories, as well as establishing a pathway for broader national laboratory assistance.

It’s also important to note that we have a lot to learn from TEPCO as we move through this process. Remediation at Fukushima will be a long process with many technical challenges; the approaches developed and the solutions applied will provide the international nuclear community with insights that will be important elements of our environmental response and remediation knowledge base.

Related: The Cleanup Challenge at Fukushima Daiichi and U.S.-Japan Collaboration