With the Cold War over and plutonium production halted at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, the federal facility seemed destined only for intensive and expensive cleanup (HCN, 1/22/96). No longer.

Outgoing Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has announced that Hanford's research nuclear reactor, named the Fast Flux Test Facility, will remain on standby for two more years while the agency studies its suitability for making tritium, a hydrogen isotope used to boost the power of nuclear weapons.

If DOE officials choose Hanford over building a proposed linear accelerator in Georgia, the reactor would produce tritium for the next 10 or 15 years. Then, after the military has stockpiled enough of the bomb booster, medical researchers could use the facility to develop new isotopes for the treatment of cancer. DOE officials say starting up the Hanford reactor would be both cheaper and quicker than other options.

Anti-nuclear activists are appalled. Lynne Stembridge, director of the Hanford Education Action League, worries that the money now going for cleanup will be diverted for weapon making. "It puts Hanford back in the bomb business," says Stembridge, adding that the project is also a matter of local pork. "The boosters for the medical isotope mission believe that if they can do this, the world will beat a path to their door."

Sam Volpentest, vice president of Tridec, a local business group, says his organization is pleased that federal Energy Department is finding new uses for the reactor. The Fast Flux Test Facility "is the best reactor we have. It has an enviable safety record." But Volpentest also warns that the project still faces plenty of hurdles. "We've just been given a reprieve. There's no reason to celebrate yet."

" Elizabeth Manning