Another Blow for Troubled Reactor

In an unexpected setback for U.S. neutron scientists, two New York legislators said today that they will introduce a bill ordering the Department of Energy (DOE) not to restart the troubled High-Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. DOE officials described the surprise announcement as a major setback to their efforts to repair and eventually upgrade the reactor, which had been leaking tritium.

"The operation of this nuclear reactor poses a threat to the health of Long Islanders and to the safety of our drinking water," said Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) and Representative Michael Forbes (R-NY) in letter to Energy Secretary Federico Peña. Given Brookhaven's environmental record, they said, "there is no reason to believe that the [HFBR] could operate without further jeopardizing the health and safety of Long Islanders."

The reactor, which generates neutron beams for materials science research, was shut for routine maintenance last fall, but the discovery of the tritium leaks angered local groups and prompted DOE to reexamine whether or not it should be reopened. That review is due to be completed in January. Later this week, a DOE advisory committee of researchers is expected to argue that the reactor should not only be reopened, but also upgraded from 30 megawatts to 60 megawatts (Science, 8 August, p. 761). Opposition from the two lawmakers--who represent the lab's state and district--however, will make it more difficult for Peña to embrace such a proposal.

"It's a real setback and very unfortunate," says Martha Krebs, DOE energy research chief. "I wish they could have been more patient." But Krebs insists that political opposition will not alter DOE's timetable for determining the reactor's fate. Closing the facility would draw protests from researchers, and decommissioning it could cost nearly $200 million. But Peña cannot ignore the thinly veiled threat by D'Amato and Forbes "to do all that is within our power to see that the [HFBR] never operates again."

Posted in Policy, Physics