A controversial Hanford reactor that runs on plutonium fuel has “significant” safety problems and could explode if it’s retooled to make tritium for nuclear bombs, a recent safety analysis by government experts says.
The reactor, the Fast Flux Test Facility, was put on “hot standby” in January for a possible weapons mission - making tritium gas for the triggers of nuclear warheads.
The U.S. Department of Energy won’t decide whether to use the Fast Flux reactor until December 1998. It’s one of three options the agency is considering.
But critics upset about a future weapons role for Hanford are objecting. The Government Accountability Project, a Hanford watchdog group, released the Energy Department’s safety analysis of the reactor at a Tuesday press conference in Seattle.
Some Energy Department scientists worry about using the reactor to produce tritium, according to a July 1996 briefing by the department’s Office of Defense Programs.
Fast Flux fuel has high plutonium concentrations, Fast Flux fuel has high plutonium concentrations, which may “reduce the controllability of the reactor” and threaten its stability, the report says.
“Modifying a test reactor to stretch capacity as a production machine places the reliable operation of the plant at risk,” the report notes.
The DOE analysis is a “sweeping condemnation” of a tritium mission for the reactor, said Arjun Makhijani of the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md.
Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and plutonium expert, reviewed the DOE safety documents Tuesday for The Spokesman-Review. He said the reports show it would be “extremely dangerous” to produce tritium at the reactor.
“You could lose control of the chain reactions, getting a doubling of power within a few seconds. And when that happens, the reactor explodes like a bomb. That’s what happened at Chernobyl,” he said.
DOE officials disagree that anything that serious could happen, said Terry Lash, director of DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology.
“I am unaware of any technical analysis within DOE that suggests (the reactor) could explode like a bomb,” Lash said in an interview.
One of the documents GAP obtained appears to contradict that statement.
William Kelly, a government reactor operations specialist, warns in a July 1996 memo that a fast-track schedule aimed at restarting the reactor by 2004 for weapons work would not allow time for a “bomb calculation.”
That is a safety test to analyze whether the building could withstand a nuclear meltdown when using highly enriched plutonium fuel. Under one hypothetical scenario, a reactor accident could “trigger a very severe accident,” Kelly wrote.
Before DOE makes any proposal to restart the reactor, it will “carefully address that question and allow adequate time for the public to review our work,” Lash said.
The documents also show there is skepticism among military officials about the use of the facility.
In a March 22 letter to Charles Curtis, DOE’s deputy secretary, Air Force Maj. Gen. Eldon Joersz outlined his concerns.
“No engineering has been done to support the physics calculations” used to predict the reactor could deliver 1.5 kilograms of tritium per year to the military, Joersz said.
Also, the schedule assumes many of the required facilities would be built before an environmental impact statement is completed.
“What is the basis for permitting this?” Joersz asked. A new EIS would be necessary, and it’s likely to face delays, he noted.
“Given that Hanford stakeholders have spent the last decade attempting to shut down production activities at Hanford it is likely that an EIS for tritium production would be contentious and would delay restart,” Joersz said.
The Fast Flux facility was supposed to be shut down as part of Hanford’s cleanup mission. But in January, after heavy lobbying from nuclear contractors and business interests in the Tri-Cities, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary decided to keep it on standby.
She said the reactor should be studied as one of three options to produce tritium. DOE also is considering using civilian nuclear reactors, or building a new linear accelerator in South Carolina.
Former Gov. Mike Lowry and Oregon officials oppose the reactor’s restart or any other new defense mission for Hanford.
But Gov. Gary Locke supports restart because the reactor also may be used to produce medical isotopes, and would create 1,000 jobs in the Tri-Cities.
O’Leary’s decision infuriated regional public interest groups, who oppose any weapons work at Hanford and decry the use of Hanford cleanup money to keep the reactor alive.
DOE wants to transfer $31 million for the Fast Flux facility this year from Hanford’s cleanup budget back to the agency’s nuclear energy budget.
That’s a “shell game,” the Hanford Education Action League of Spokane says in its most recent newsletter.
“This allows DOE to claim that Nuclear Energy - not cleanup - is paying for the reactor. Still, the cleanup account has been reduced by the $31 million a year necessary to keep (the reactor) on hot standby,” HEAL complained.
The transfer is actually a wash, Lash said.
That’s because the money to run the reactor originally was in the Nuclear Energy budget and is simply being transferred back.
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