DOE to Close Leaky Neutron Lab

David Malakoff
1999-11-17 17:00

Researchers have lost a major tool for probing the structure of matter. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced yesterday that he has decided to permanently close the mothballed High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. The surprise move stunned both opponents and supporters of the facility, who were digging in for what was expected to be a long battle over the safety of restarting the controversial reactor.

The HFBR, opened in 1965, is a 60-megawatt nuclear reactor that provides scientists with neutron beams. These can be used to probe the atomic structures of everything from metals to tissues, and to produce radioactive isotopes for use in medicine and in biomedical studies. But the device has been on indefinite standby since January 1997, when workers discovered that radioactive tritium gas had leaked from the reactor into nearby groundwater. The revelation ignited local opposition to restarting the reactor. Last year, the Department of Energy (DOE) replaced the lab's management and announced it would undertake a full-scale review of the reactor's potential threat to public health and the environment.

A first draft of that review was due to be delivered next month for public comment, but Richardson opted to short-circuit the process by announcing the shutdown. The decision, he said, reflected lack of support in Congress for restarting the reactor and DOE's view that the funds could be better spent elsewhere. "While I don't believe the Brookhaven reactor is a threat to the public or the environment, we need to focus our limited resources on productive research," Richardson said in a statement. DOE officials say the agency has spent about $23 million per year keeping the HFBR on standby, but declined to estimate how much more it will cost to decommission and dismantle the reactor. Brookhaven officials earlier had estimated closing costs at nearly $200 million.

While environmentalists praised the decision, researchers mourned their loss. Richardson "pulled the rug out from under us--we weren't given a fighting chance," says Brookhaven physicist Steve Shapiro, who noted that as many as 300 scientists used the reactor the year before its shutdown. Now, he says, they will have to fight for time at the two other facilities--one in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the other in Grenoble, France--that produce neutron beams of similar energies.

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