October 1999

Nuclear Plant Criticality Safety Rules were broken in a US Facility

New York Times, October 18, 1999
By Matthew W. Wald

[Posted 21/10/1999]

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 reactor.

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 production.

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 safety concern."

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.

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