New Demands on German Neutron Source

BERN, SWITZERLAND--Plans to open a long-awaited neutron source this fall near Munich were thrown into confusion last week after the German cabinet called for a change in the research reactor's fuel source. It also said the State of Bavaria, rather than the federal government, should pick up the hefty tab for building a storage facility to dispose of spent fuel. Unless a compromise is reached, those new demands could delay the start-up of the $500 million FRM-II reactor and increase costs.

The nearly completed reactor was designed to use highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. That's a thorn for an international effort to phase out HEU-fueled research reactors, mainly because of fears that terrorists could divert HEU for nuclear bombmaking. In a 21 March statement, the cabinet said the reactor should shift to medium enriched (MEU) fuel within 5 years. The Bavarian government has resisted a rapid conversion to MEU fuel--and insists that pricey nuclear-waste storage is a federal responsibility. Berlin, however, holds a trump card: FRM-II must receive a final permit from the environment ministry before it goes on line.

Caught in the middle of the dispute are scores of physicists, materials scientists, and structural biologists who have labored for years on instruments for the FRM-II's beam lines. "They need a clear message about its future," says Winfried Petry, a physicist at the Technical University in Munich and head of the FRM-II's scientific board. The two dozen instruments for the beam lines include the Munich Accelerator for Fission Fragments, a machine that would smash neutron-rich nuclei into heavy elements to forge long-lived superheavy elements with atomic numbers up to 126. "We'll be extremely disappointed if [a political contretemps] causes a delay" in the FRM-II start-up, says the machine's designer, Munich University physicist Dieter Habs.

Both sides are hopeful that a deal can be worked out. "I still think we can get this reactor running within 6 months," says Bavaria's science minister, Hans Zehetmair. Federal officials agree that it is feasible for the final operating permit to be issued before midyear--if the Bavarians compromise.

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