Controversial Reactor Set to Close

In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced yesterday that it plans to pull the plug on a controversial nuclear reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. The reactor, known as the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), has been maintained in standby mode since being shuttered in 1992.

The decision to scrap the Hanford reactor surprised many experts. DOE officials were considering restarting the reactor to produce radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment and plutonium for deep space probes; a draft of the environmental impact statement (EIS) released this summer spelled out a need for both roles and stated that reopening the facility would pose no major environmental hazards. Readying the reactor for restart was projected to take 5 years and cost $314 million, with an additional $59 million a year needed to run it.

In a move intended to cut costs, DOE officials had proposed leasing reactor beam time to companies to produce commercial supplies of isotopes needed for medical diagnostic procedures and cancer treatments. Numerous candidate customers expressed preliminary interest, but in a conference call with reporters yesterday, DOE director of nuclear energy William Magwood said that DOE never received enough firm commitments to proceed with the FFTF restart.

Activists are still wary. Gerald Pollet, head of Heart of America Northwest, an environmental group that has led the fight against the facility, says he won't believe FFTF is dead until its sodium coolant is drained--after which the reactor can't be restarted. Pollet points out that George W. Bush voiced support for the facility during his presidential campaign; if Bush becomes president, a new Energy secretary could reverse the current decision. As a result, Pollet says his group is already preparing a legal case to defend yesterday's action. Says Pollet: "It's not a done deal."

Related sites

The Fast Flux Test Facility

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation

Heart of America Northwest

The Department of Energy