Sodium draining begins at FFTF - Support for using the reactor to make radioactive isotopes for new nuclear medicine procedures to more efficiently kill cancer cells ignored
August 10th, 2004
Sodium began draining from a hole drilled in a primary cooling loop of Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility at 10:20 a.m. Monday.
By late afternoon 15,000 of the 150,000 gallons of liquid sodium in the primary cooling loops had been drained from the research reactor. Earlier this year, the secondary cooling loops were drained.
"The sodium drain has given us no option to go forward," said Benton County Commissioner Claude Oliver, who has fought for a restart of the Department of Energy's newest reactor. Once sodium is drained, a restart would be prohibitively expensive.
Both Republican and Democratic administrations have looked at uses for the Hanford reactor over the last decade but found no mission they believed was economically viable for the reactor.
"This is just another step in the deactivation process we've been engaged in for some time," said Colleen Clark, spokeswoman for DOE's Richland Operations Office. "The focus is on doing it safely and on schedule."
Over the weekend, Gerald Pollet of Heart of America Northwest sent an e-mail thanking those who had fought to have the reactor permanently shut down. With the focus at Hanford on cleaning up waste left from past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program, watchdog groups pushed for no new waste-producing work at the nuclear reservation.
But in the Tri-Cities, a Monday night meeting that drew about 70 supporters of restarting the reactor was suffused with the gloom of a wake.
"This is the most advanced, most safe, most efficient and, in my opinion, most beautiful nuclear reactor in the world," said Wanda Munn, a retired engineer who spent almost 20 years working at FFTF. "This is a tragedy."
Supporters have proposed using the reactor to make tritium for weapons and isotopes to power missions deep into outer space. But the mission that drew the most fervent support called for using the reactor to make radioactive isotopes for new nuclear medicine procedures to more efficiently kill cancer cells.
In recent years, supporters have pushed for the commercialization of the reactor, primarily to produce medial isotopes. DOE turned down the latest proposal Friday, said John Deichman, chief executive of Mirari Medical, a corporation formed to purchase the reactor. Deichman is a former executive manager at Hanford.
The company had a goal of raising more than $1 billion and said it had the Standard and Poors audit to prove it had a viable plan. Mirari would have been profitable by its third year of operation and would have paid for the eventual dismantling of the reactor, Deichman said.
DOE is proceeding with the steps it needs to complete the decommissioning of the reactor.
It has requested bid proposals from small businesses for the estimated $500 million cleanup and closure of the reactor, which operated from 1982-92. The field has been narrowed to three proposals.
DOE also soon will be asking for public comment on how the reactor should be decommissioned, including whether its core should be left standing or torn down to the ground and what should happen to its waste.
The sodium being drained from the reactor is being stored as a solid in steel canisters at the FFTF complex. DOE plans to have it processed into a caustic substance that can be reused in the process of turning other Hanford waste into a glasslike substance for permanent disposal.
How could the U.S. Department of Energy reject an FFTF commercialization
and property re-utilization plan, evaluated to be overall conservative
by Standard and Poors, that would have resulted in a half- to one-billion
dollar national tax savings and provided a much needed medical technology
Claude Oliver (509) 531-9493 Cell
FFTF sodium drain to begin next week
August 7th, 2004
The Department of Energy plans to permanently pull the plug on Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility next week.
Sodium is scheduled to be drained from its primary loops, possibly as early as Monday, ending the dream of restarting the test reactor for even its staunchest supporters. The process will take two to three weeks.
Saving the reactor now would take "an act of God," said Benton County Commissioner Claude Oliver late Friday afternoon.
Republican and Democrat administrations have looked at restarting the reactor, but found no financially viable plan for its use. Plans floated over the past dozen years have included using it to produce electricity, tritium for nuclear weapons, isotopes to power deep space missions and isotopes for new medicines, industry and agriculture.
With the permanent shutdown of FFTF, Hanford is unlikely to ever have a federal nuclear production mission again. The reservation was created in World War II to make plutonium for the nuclear weapons program.
The 400-megawatt FFTF was finished in 1978 to serve as a test reactor for the government's breeder-reactor program. Then DOE wanted to move to the next generation of nuclear energy reactors, which were planned to produce as much or more plutonium as they used.
FFTF remains DOE's newest reactor and its "fast flux," or average neutron speed, makes it capable of more varied reactions than most reactors.
The reactor operated from 1982 to 1992, testing advance nuclear fuels and designs and producing a wide variety of medical and industrial isotopes. Concerns about nuclear nonproliferation ended the reactor's mission.
As proposals for new uses were investigated, DOE maintained it in a condition to restart until the Bush administration ordered decommissioning to start in 2001.
No major, irreversible damage was done to the reactor until spring 2003 when sodium was drained from its secondary cooling loops. Once the loops are emptied of the sodium used to cool the reactor, cracks can develop.
Even the most determined supporters of the reactor believe a restart will be impossible after the next step in decommissioning -- draining sodium from the primary cooling loops, as is planned next week.
Oliver was trying to reach Gov. Gary Locke on Friday night to ask him to intervene to delay the drain. Although Locke has no regulatory authority to stop the drain, Oliver believes he has the political clout to stop it.
The latest proposal to use FFTF had been made by Mirari, a private corporation formed to restart the reactor to make isotopes primarily for new treatments for cancer and other medicines and to protect the nation's food supply through irradiation.
Little information on the corporation was made public, but Chief Executive Officer John Deichman said it would have employed 300 people at the reactor and eventually included a medical clinic employing 600 people to treat patients with the short-lived isotopes.
Late Friday afternoon, Mirari was notified in a telephone conversation that DOE had rejected the Mirari proposal, Deichman said. He believed part of DOE's concern was based on liability issues.
"We have been seriously let down," Oliver said. "What happened to our leadership in Washington state?"
The political climate in Washington is "hostile to anything nuclear," wrote Carl Holder of Citizens for Medical Isotopes in an e-mail message sent late Friday afternoon to supporters of restarting the reactor.
In the Tri-Cities, many government, organized labor and civic organizations have backed a restart. They saw potential not just for jobs, but also for new life-saving medical treatments. FFTF was proposed to make isotopes to be attached to agents that travel through the body, latch onto cancer cells and deliver a powerful, short-lived dose of radiation to kill malignant cells.
But in late 2002, with decommissioning of the reactor already under way, some community leaders began to say all realistic options for restarting the reactor had been exhausted. Continuing to fight a losing battle for restart would only cost Hanford support for its $2 billion annual project to clean up massive contamination from past plutonium production, they said.
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