RESTARTING FFTF: OVER MY DEAD BODY
By Lynn Porter
Dept. of Energy Bill Richardson has announced a decision to go ahead with a one-year Environmental Impact Statement on restarting Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility nuclear reactor. The EIS will involve public input at meetings in Portland and other cities. When the EIS is completed Richardson will make a decision to restart the reactor or shut it down.
Restart of FFTF has been strongly opposed by Oregon senator Ron Wyden and representatives Earl Blumenauer and David Wu. Rep. Wu has introduced a bill cutting off all funding for FFTF. Rep. Blumenauer told Hanford Watch president Paige Knight that FFTF would be restarted "over my dead body."
The main mission being considered for FFTF is producing isotopes (radioactive materials) for medical, space probe batteries and industrial uses. Production of medical isotopes alone will not financially support the reactor, at least in the near future. Other missions will also be required.
If they run FFTF at full power -- 400 megawatts -- it will generate about a ton of nuclear waste per year. (Power level will depend on what missions are adopted.) In nuclear circles this is considered a small amount, but it is still one ton per year, for 20 years, of waste that will be dangerous to human and other life for over 10,000 years. We presently have no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, and we may never have a way.
Hanford Watch does not want any more nuclear waste generated at Hanford, which is already the largest nuclear dump (counting the waste in the underground tanks) in the western hemisphere. We want to draw a hard line and say, no more! It may be half a century before they clean up the mess they've already made -- if ever.
We also feel that any new production mission for Hanford will divert money, energy and attention from cleanup, which is supposed to be Hanford's only mission. DOE says the money to run FFTF will not come from cleanup funds, but it is still public money that could be spent on cleanup.
FFTF has the same safety issues associated with all reactors, plus its liquid sodium coolant which burns on contact with air. One of our technical advisors told us that a liquid sodium leak could explode the reactor (chemical explosion). This would disperse the reactor's nuclear fuel into the air.
There is controversy among doctors about whether more medical isotopes are needed, and whether there will ever be a sufficient market to support using FFTF to produce them. We now import medical isotopes. Those promoting FFTF say the U.S. needs to develop its own supply.
An important point is that the nuclear waste generated by FFTF would also be a potent carcinogen if it ever escaped into the environment. Currently FFTF's highly radioactive spent fuel from past operations is stored outside in cement casks sitting on a cement pad. After our recent tour of FFTF we wondered what might happen to those casks if there were a serious earthquake in the region. The long-term plan is to send the waste to a tunnel underneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that repository may never open. (See http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/whatsnew.htm)
If more medical isotopes are needed, my feeling is that they should be produced some other way, at some other place. The Northwest has suffered enough. I've read that isotopes can be produced in particle accelerators, where charged atomic particles are accelerated through underground tunnels until they smash into targets. Accelerators produce no nuclear waste, since they don't involve fission (except, I guess, for the small amount that happens in the targets). DOE claims that FFTF could produce more isotopes than an accelerator.
Before DOE tries to produce any isotopes at FFTF, they must prove to us that there is no other feasible place these isotopes can be produced. Then they must convince us that these isotopes are absolutely essential. The burden of proof is on them.
Then WE must decide whether producing these isotopes is worth the amount of carcinogenic nuclear waste that will be generated, the safety risks and the diversion from cleanup. A lot of us have already decided.