The long-awaited opening of a nuclear research reactor in Garching, outside Munich, has been delayed again. Last week, the federal environment ministry blocked the opening of the FRM-II reactor, citing concerns about safety and waste disposal. Reactor officials and researchers lament this development, saying that the reactor poses no threat to the public.
FRM-II is the biggest nuclear research facility in Germany. It would also be Germany's best probe for exploring the inner structure of new materials and includes a facility for treating cancer patients with neutron radiation. Although the reactor was completed in August 2000, its start-up was pushed back by negotiations over the fuel source and nuclear waste storage (ScienceNOW, 26 March 2001). Last fall, a compromise about the operation of the reactor was reached.
But last week the Federal Environment Ministry rejected a draft application to start the reactor, saying that plant officials need to consider whether the 11 September attacks have implications for the safety of the reactor. In a statement, the ministry also said that the reactor needs a better strategy for dealing with accidents and waste disposal.
Winfried Petry, director of scientific applications of the reactor, insists the federal government's concerns are unwarranted. "This is the safest research reactor in the world," he says, citing a thumbs-up that the reactor received late last year from the German radiation protection commission. Peter Armbruster, a former adviser to the federal government on the fate of the reactor, agrees: "If you start counting every single Becquerel [unit of radiation], it is impossible to run any reactor."
Petry says he is having trouble hiring people to fill research posts at the facility. Moreover, he says, six postdocs and five engineers have quit out of frustration over the drawn-out approval process. Young scientists who have spent 3 years building a research instrument but get no chance to use it have "no real chance of a successful career in academia," complains Götz Eckold from the University of Göttingen, who built and oversees one instrument at the reactor. "We are losing them to industry and other branches of physics."
The Bavarian government said it would submit a revised application by May, and federal authorities have promised a speedy review.
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