Ten years of political wrangling and $400 million were not enough to save a controversial nuclear reactor in eastern Washington.
The Fast Flux Test Facility, a research reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, was first shut down in 1993. Department of Energy (DOE) officials and Washington state politicians fought to keep the facility alive, however, and $40 million a year were spent preserving the facility for a possible re-opening.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham ended those attempts at preservation late last month, ordering the facility permanently shut down.
Rep. Doc Hastings (R–Wash.) led the most recent effort to save the facility by pushing its potential to develop isotopes for medical research. Abraham’s decision follows a DOE review of commercial research proposals that found them all to be impractical, risky, and prohibitively expensive.
Environmentalists and Pacific Northwest community activists see the decision and closure as a victory—and a relief.
“Families across Washington and Oregon can rest easier tonight knowing that citizens were able to prevent adding more wastes and risks of nuclear catastrophe to the threats Hanford poses to our region and the Columbia River,” says Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a group that for years has criticized operations at Hanford.
Groups like Heart of America Northwest, the Government Accountability Project and Columbia Riverkeeper had been pressuring the DOE to make a final decision to shut down the reactor. Public hearings drew more than 1,000 citizens speaking against the facility and more than 10,000 written comments. The issue also loomed large in several Washington state political campaigns.
“The successful resolution of this five-year battle is due to citizen activism in the Northwest, which involved thousands of concerned citizens,” says Wenonah Hauter, director of the Critical Mass Energy and Environmental Program of the national watchdog group, Public Citizen.
From 1982 to 1992 Fast Flux tested nuclear materials and supported “breeder” research, a process by which uranium is burned to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The controversial process has been discontinued in many nations because of concerns about safety and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
“One can only wonder what took the U.S. government so long to bring this dangerous chapter of nuclear history to a close,” says Tom Clements, executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute. Clements says the DOE should turn its attention to discouraging similar nuclear programs in other nations and cleaning up the rest of the Hanford site.
“Keeping this last vestige of the breeder program on standby wasted over $400 million,” Clements says. “Money that should have been spent on shutdown and on waste cleanup at Hanford.”