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New helium recovery system to benefit DHS radiation detectors

SRNS helium recovery facility

The government operation responsible for producing the element tritium for U.S. nuclear weapons has completed plans to relocate a system used to recover a helium byproduct that is used in Department of Homeland radiation detectors.

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC (SRNS), the management and operations contractor at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River nuclear site in Aiken, SC, recently completed relocating, designing and building a new system that separates and captures helium-3 gas.

Helium-3 gas, a byproduct of the tritium manufacturing process for nuclear weapons, is primarily used in DHS radiation detectors to identify neutron activity from nuclear material, said SRNS.

SRNS is responsible for the recovery and management of helium-3 as one of their key missions for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), said an SRNS statement on July 24. The recovery system upgrade project paves the way for a larger initiative to maintain and modernize Tritium operations while reducing operational footprint and costs, it said.

The previous helium-3 recovery system had been operating for over 40 years and was no longer cost effective to operate or maintain, said SRNS. The effort is aprt of the Tritium Responsive Infrastructure Modifications initiative that SRNS said could save as much as $28 million annually by using newer technology. The age of the equipment, potential for contaminants, and the need to relocate the recovery process out of the previous Cold War-era facility, drove the requirement to install an upgraded recovery system in a new location, it said.

According to SRNS, shop fabrication activities began in November 2010 and field activities began in April 2011 to provide a state of the art, oil, mercury and lead free system that would separate and bottle helium gas. To accomplish this, the project required the construction of a glovebox to house approximately 1,200 feet of stainless steel piping connected by approximately 1,300 welds, four vacuum pumps, three compressors, two zeolite beds and 20 instruments. In addition to the glovebox, the new system incorporates two ASME code stainless steel tanks for feed and waste, a control panel, oxygen monitor, exhausts duct and several interfaces to existing Tritium plant systems.