SRS, Plant Vogtle, High Flyer (copy)

An aerial view of the Savannah River Site, which is about 30 minutes south of Aiken. In the distance is Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Georgia.

A COVID-19 scare last month halted construction for two weeks at the Savannah River Site's Surplus Plutonium Disposition project, an incident that highlights how the coronavirus pandemic has flustered the broader nuclear and national defense landscapes.

The stoppage was called "in an abundance of caution" April 6, after a Surplus Plutonium Disposition project construction worker called in sick, a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson told the Aiken Standard. The worker ultimately tested negative for COVID-19, and things resumed April 20.

The suspension was disclosed in an April 17 report from the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which monitors installations like SRS the country over. The weekly dispatch said the stand-down came after personnel "became sick" – explicitly not COVID-19 – and others "raised concerns."

Fourteen cases of COVID-19 have been logged at the Savannah River Site as of May 18. Over 9,000 cases have been confirmed in South Carolina. Thousands more have been confirmed in Georgia, which neighbors the 310-square-mile site.

Contemporary construction work for the Surplus Plutonium Disposition project – what's been described as the NNSA's centerpiece for dilute-and-dispose, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility alternative – includes the demolition and removal of some existing equipment at the site's K-Area, a retrofitted reactor complex, and the creation of new access points.

The two-week pause is not expected to affect the project schedule, the NNSA spokesperson said. Construction will continue in fiscal year 2022.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the weapons-and-nonproliferation arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, in late 2019 signed off on the disposition project's so-called Critical Decision 1, a crucial step forward. A project is effectively complete and ready at Critical Decision 4.

A committee previously approved a cost range of $448 million to $620 million for the Surplus Plutonium Disposition project, which should begin operations in earnest in 2028.

Work on the MOX alternative continues amid the pandemic and, more specifically, the Savannah River Site's stringent essential mission-critical posture because the venture was deemed indispensable.

"NNSA projects and missions at Savannah River Site are considered mission essential functions that ensure the accomplishment of vital national security missions," the National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson said. "In addition, the SPD project at Savannah River Site provides the capability to expedite removal of plutonium from the state of South Carolina, which is a top priority for the department."

The DNFSB cited similar reasoning.

Approximately 11½ metric tons of surplus plutonium were kept at the Savannah River Site as of February.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin