November 16, 1999

U.S. to Permanently Close Nuclear Reactor at Brookhaven

GARDEN 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 added.

"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 chain reaction.

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 its southwest.

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.

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