It started with a letter. A request.
A bid to combat the Soviet Union at a time of burgeoning international rivalry and under an escalating threat of doomsday arsenals.
In 1950, President Harry Truman requested the design and construction expertise of DuPont for a new atomic project – what was to become the Savannah River Plant, a clandestine Cold War complex south of Aiken, bounded by its snaking namesake river.
A November 1950 headline in the Aiken Standard and Review proclaimed: “AEC To Construct Huge Plant Near Aiken.” The AEC, shorthand for Atomic Energy Commission, from which contemporary agencies sprung, was established after World War II to manage the development and application of nuclear science and technology.
“250 Thousand Acres Selected For Location,” stated another Aiken Standard and Review headline, abutting a notice that a map was not available. Modern maps show the site as a blot, an industrial island in a bucolic sea, on South Carolina’s western flank.
Construction of the Savannah River Plant began in 1951. That same year, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory began its study of the area, its myriad animals and plants.
Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO J. David Jameson has speculated that local business and government leaders “did not instantly grasp the magnitude of what was about to happen within Aiken and the surrounding area.”
A cluster of South Carolina communities were moved to accommodate what was happening. (The “New” in New Ellenton hints at this.) The Savannah River Site Museum in downtown Aiken reopened in 2019 with “6,000 Stories,” an intimate exhibit both documenting and exploring the lives and accounts of those upheaved.
“I think the site has had a significant impact not just on Aiken County, but the CSRA,” said Lauren Miller, the museum director. “Historically speaking, we see this from the very beginning with the displacement of 6,000 residents.”
The plant, now recognized as the Savannah River Site, took several years to flesh out and complete. Thousands of workers were enlisted for the mammoth endeavor, which included building nuclear reactors and support facilities, chemical separations plants and waste management hubs.
“The SRS Museum’s building, in particular, even points to this impact, with the expansion of the Dibble in 1951 to make room for a larger library with additional books for the anticipated influx of people,” Miller said. “It’s created a neat mixture of cultures and minds here, and I do believe this has persisted through the present day as the site continues to attract a variety of people.”
In 1953, R Reactor, the first production reactor, went critical. The P, L, K and C reactors followed.
The Savannah River Plant, now consuming hundreds of square miles of land, was designed to produce materials for nuclear weapons: plutonium and tritium, mainly. In the 1950s, in the shadows of a Soviet Union atomic test and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it began doing exactly that.
The site pumped out metric tons of plutonium between 1953 and 1988. The first plutonium shipment left the site in 1955, the same year H-Canyon began radioactive operations.
H-Canyon, a hulking tomb-like facility, operates to this day.
“Since the site was created in 1950, SRS employees, along with our partners in the surrounding South Carolina and Georgia communities, have been at the forefront of national security, environmental stewardship and world-class innovation,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said in a video celebrating the site’s legacy.
“The patriotism, dedication and determination of the SRS employees in keeping the fragile peace of the Cold War, and in ensuring that our nation and our allies remain safe, secure and free,” the energy secretary continued, “should never be forgotten. And it won’t be forgotten.”
In 1956, a scientific breakthrough occurred at P Reactor with a finding of Nobel Prize eminence: the confirmation of the elusive neutrino by Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan Jr. The American Chemical Society has cast the neutrino as “a tricky little ghost of a particle.”
“It has no charge and little or no mass,” according to the society, “and it has been around since the Big Bang.”
In 1972, the Savannah River Plant was designated a National Environmental Research Park.
“Many of the brightest scientists and engineers of the time would soon be our neighbors and friends,” Jameson has said.
In the 1980s, ground was broken for the Defense Waste Processing Facility, a brutalist behemoth that to this day encases radioactive sludge in glass, making it safer to handle and store. Plutonium-238, material that served as a nuclear battery for a bevy of deep-space explorations, was produced at HB-Line. Wackenhut Services began protecting the plant and its personnel. And DuPont made it clear it would not continue to operate and manage the nuclear reserve. Westinghouse Savannah River Company eventually took over.
The environmental cleanup program also began that decade. It continues today – under the guidance and stewardship of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management – and will continue for decades to come.
The site celebrated its 50th birthday in 2000. This year, its 70th. The Aiken Chamber of Commerce honored the milestone at its annual awards gala. Erlenmeyer flasks served as centerpieces. Cakes were adorned with cartoon atoms. Beaker-shaped wine glasses flaunted Fluor’s logo.
“Congratulations SRS,” Julie Whitesell, the chamber of commerce chair, said at the time. “Happy anniversary.”
The early 2000s ushered in a flurry of changes and new ventures at the Savannah River Site (the name changed years prior), including the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, other plutonium missions, and Environmental Management crowning the Savannah River National Laboratory its corporate lab.
MOX, designed to turn metric tons of deemed-surplus plutonium into nuclear fuel, would never be finished. After years of work and ballooning price tags and timelines, the National Nuclear Security Administration axed it. South Carolina lawmakers were not pleased; an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was eventually rejected.
In the late 2000s, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and Savannah River Remediation secured their still-standing contracts. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions leads the site as the management and operations team. Savannah River Remediation is in charge of the liquid-waste mission, handling and processing millions of gallons of radioactive waste, a Cold War vestige seen as South Carolina’s single largest environmental threat.
Stuart MacVean, the president and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, described being a part of the site’s 70th anniversary as both humbling and energizing.
“The vital national missions that have been safely completed by the tens of thousands of people who’ve worked here is nothing short of a national achievement that exemplifies the power of teamwork and innovation,” MacVean said. “It’s the kind of history that should remind us all that our capabilities are limitless when we work together – not only as a workforce, but as a community.”
More than a decade later, as an exceedingly turbulent 2020 crests, the site is positioned for notable growth and a return to its national defense and nuclear security roots. An enduring plutonium pit production mission – the crafting of nuclear weapon cores – has been proposed for the site, and tritium production is expected to grow exponentially.
In a missive marking the 75th anniversary of Trinity, the first nuclear bomb test, President Donald Trump championed plutonium pit production, the multibillion-dollar weapons mission already leaning on the Palmetto State and its storied Savannah River Site.
The president’s nod was couched between a retelling of the Trinity test – years of furtive research ultimately ushered in an age of unfathomable potential destruction – and a remark about the Cold War and trilateral arms control.
“In order to continue protecting America’s vital security interests, I have directed my Administration to revitalize and modernize America’s nuclear security complex to preserve a credible deterrent,” reads the presidential message. “We are investing in the capability to produce plutonium pits to support our stockpile needs and to improve the infrastructure of the weapons ecosystem.”