Plant Criticality Safety Rules were broken in a US Facility
New York Times, October 18, 1999
By Matthew W. Wald
Supervisors at a
government nuclear fuel factory near Richland, Wash., sometimes told
workers to ignore rules designed to prevent accidental nuclear reactions,
according to an Energy Department investigation that has gained new
interest because of a recent accident in Japan.
The factory, the
Plutonium Finishing Plant at the department's Hanford Nuclear Reservation,
stopped production 10 years ago because the United States no longer
needed new plutonium for nuclear weapons.
But the Energy
Department is considering reopening a nearby test reactor, mainly used
for research and for production of isotopes that can be used for electric
power in space ships. Restarting the reactor, known as the Fast Flux
Test Facility, could revive the use of the finishing plant to process
plutonium, which is a product of the reactor as well as its fuel.
Opponents of the reactor say the fuel it requires
and its history of rules violations are similar to those that led to
a nuclear accident last month in Tokaimura, Japan.
In that accident,
three workers received large doses of radiation and dozens more were
exposed at lower levels when workers broke plant rules and put too much
uranium in a container, allowing a chain reaction to begin. The industry
calls this an uncontrolled "criticality."
"All the elements
for a Tokaimura nuclear criticality disaster exist at Hanford," said
Gerry Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest. That
group and another organization that is trying to stop the reopening
of the reactor, the Government Accountability Project, obtained documents
about the investigation and released them on the eve of a hearing into
The two groups
say the fuels used at the reactor resemble those at Tokaimura, enriched
with a much higher percentage of the kind of atoms that can sustain
a chain reaction.
at can sustain a
chain reaction. But while the Fast Flux Test Facility may use a highly
enriched fuel, that fuel is solid and thus is not vulnerable to the
kind of accident that happened in Japan, Ernest Moniz, the undersecretary
of energy, said in a telephone interview.
Moniz said that
six years of fuel was in hand at Hanford and that Germany, which is
moving away from using plutonium, had offered enough for another 14
years. The Plutonium Finishing Plant's involvement would be minimal,
he said. And while Moniz acknowledged that "there clearly were some
procedural breakdowns, involving workers and supervisors," he said the
agency had been correcting those problems.
According to a
short history assembled by Robert Alvarez, a former senior Energy Department
official, there have been nine criticality accidents in the United States
since 1945, eight of them in the government's system for making nuclear
weapons, including one at Hanford, in 1962. In the accidents, four people
died within days of exposure.
The Plutonium Finishing
Plant has not had any accidents of this kind, but it was shut down for
long periods in 1996 and 1997 after 17 violations of rules meant to
avoid criticalities. The violations took place as technicians tried
intermittently to stabilize liquid plutonium left over from weapons
A government investigation
in November 1997 found that "in several instances, supervisors directed
the workers to ignore the procedures or postings and perform the work."
"Although no adverse consequences occurred," the
report said, "the increased chance of creating an unsafe condition due
to noncompliance with criticality safety procedures is a significant
The rules violations
included moving plutonium without knowing how much other plutonium was
nearby, raising the possibility that a critical mass would be brought
together, creating a lethal shower of radiation.
The Fast Flux Test Facility was shut in 1992 after
running for about a decade. Although the Energy Department has not yet
decided to reopen it, the agency is to begin hearings in Seattle on
Monday as part of an environmental review of the idea.