Washington citizens fight to save aging Hanford reactor


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "Feds find shortcuts in nuclear cleanup."

The cleanup at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington has most citizens bidding a fond farewell to the nuclear era. But the planned closure of the Fast Flux Test Facility, a liquid-metal cooled nuclear reactor, has met unanticipated opposition from some locals.

The U.S. Department of Energy has kept the reactor on standby since 1992, at a cost of $40 million a year, an expense that led both the Clinton and Bush administrations to order the facility to shut down.

But Claude Oliver of the Citizens for Medical Isotopes says the shutdown, which began in February, is a mistake. Instead, his group wants the facility to be privatized and used to produce medical isotopes, which can be used to treat cancer and other diseases. Oliver says a reopened facility would save taxpayers a billion dollars in decommissioning costs and make the reactor "the world's medical isotope center."

Watchdogs say the citizens' group is a collection of old Hanford employees not ready to relinquish the past. "It's just a scam to regenerate support for the reactor," says Greg deBruler of Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group. A newer facility in Los Alamos, N.M., he says, can produce "as many medical isotopes as we want."

The Energy Department has begun draining the Fast Flux reactor's sodium coolant, a process which by next June will eliminate the possibility of restart. Oliver's group is asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help put the reactor in private hands before then, and is suing the Energy Department to stop draining.

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