November 16, 1999
U.S. to Permanently Close Nuclear Reactor at Brookhaven
By MICHAEL COOPER
ARDEN CITY, N.Y. --
The federal government is planning
to permanently close an aging nuclear reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory that has been shut
since 1996 when the authorities discovered it had been leaking radioactive water into the ground, federal
officials said Monday.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson
is expected to announce the closing
of the reactor, known as the High
Flux Beam Reactor, on Tuesday, an
Energy Department official said.
The rest of the laboratory, which is
owned by the department, is to remain open for scientific research.
The nuclear reactor was used for
more than three decades for groundbreaking research in physics, medicine and biology. But it has drawn
stiff opposition from its neighbors in
Suffolk County, along with environmentalists and politicians, since officials learned that tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, had been
leaking from the tiled tank beneath
the reactor that held spent fuel. The
discovery of the leak, and of official
inaction that kept it from being detected earlier, played a major role in
the government's decision in 1997 to
dismiss the organization that had
managed the lab for 50 years.
But the Energy Department official stressed that the reactor was not
considered unsafe, and said that the
decision to close it was based largely
on economic issues. The department,
which has been prohibited by Congress from restarting the reactor for
the last three years, has had to spend
$23 million a year just to keep the
reactor on "standby status," the official said. And a departmental analysis determined that reopening the
reactor would be even more costly
and take several years, the official
"The decision was not made with
any sense that the reactor was a
threat to the public or the environment," the official said.
The High Flux Beam Reactor at
Brookhaven was much smaller than
nuclear reactors built to create power, but it operated on the same principle. Atoms of uranium-235, a natural but unstable element, were used
at the reactor to throw off subatomic
particles called neutrons that hit other atoms and split them, releasing
still more neutrons and sustaining a
But if the means of the two types of
nuclear plants were similar, their
ends were completely different. Power plants use nuclear reactions to
create heat that can be converted
into electricity; they produce neutrons only to sustain the chain reaction. At Brookhaven, heat was considered a waste product, and the
whole purpose of the reactor was to
make a stream of neutrons. Those
neutrons were then directed against
solid objects in a series of experiments to learn about the internal
structures of the objects.
Experiments that were conducted
with the reactor helped create a
number of drugs used to treat bone
cancer and other ailments; others
helped scientists learn about the
structure of solid materials.
The trouble began in December of
1996, when officials learned about the
leaking tritium. The 5,300-acre
Brookhaven National Laboratory, in
Upton, N.Y., had already been identified as an environmental problem
and declared a federal Superfund
cleanup site. It had been dealing with
pesticide contamination of the
ground water to its southeast and
chemical-solvent contamination to
In 1997, the Energy Department
released a report that found Brookhaven National Laboratory had
sometimes sacrificed safety in the
name of science. The report cited the
laboratory for failing to respond to
the discovery of high tritium levels
as far back as 1986. Furthermore, it
said that the lab delayed on promises
to install monitoring wells that could
have detected the problem much
earlier than 1996.
Associated Universities, the nonprofit group that had
administered the lab since it opened,
was replaced by Brookhaven Science
Associates, led by the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
All along, however, the Energy Department has maintained that the
tritium leak would pose no serious
health risk to neighbors of the lab.
The pool that was leaking was emptied, and the tritium that remains in
the ground will become less radioactive over time, officials said.
The Energy Department official
said that the department expected
Brookhaven to remain "vibrant"
even without the use of the High Flux
Beam Reactor. Last month, the laboratory opened the world's biggest
particle accelerator, the Relativistic
Heavy Ion Collider, which sends
beams of gold ions, at nearly the
speed of light, on a collision course
through a 2.4-mile-long tunnel. When
the ions collide, scientists hope they
will be able to observe conditions
similar to those that existed at the
birth of the universe.