First quarter of 2001

Final end of U.S. breeder research

Decision to shut FFTF at Hanford finalized; EBR-II sodium drained

David Lowry, WISE-Paris, 1 February 2001

[Posted 02/02/2001]

On 26 January 2001 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) printed the Record of Decision (ROD) on the status of the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), a sodium-cooled fast reactor located at DOE's Hanford nuclear site, in Washington State. The ROD, signed on 19 January 2001 by outgoing Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, states that "The Fast Flux Test Facility in Washington will be permanently deactivated." The ROD is the final action to be taken after the issuance of the final Environmental Impact Statement on FFTF & isotope production in early December 2000. The new Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham, decided not to reverse the decision taken by his predecessor. "We reviewed it, we took a look at," said Joe Davis, Abraham's lead spokesman, of former Energy Secretary Richardson's decision to close the experimental reactor for good. "Richardson's order stands," FFTF was built in 1979 to test fuel for breeder reactors. Critics say the last relic of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor program is "right now officially dead." But actual death won't occur until draining of sodium and other shutdown activities occur, something that FFTF backers will be fighting from a legislative and budgetary angle, opponents say.

On 24 July 2000 the DOE announced the availability of the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Accomplishing Expanded Civilian Nuclear Energy Research and Development and Isotope Production Missions in the United States, Including the Role of the Fast Flux Text Facility. (The document is referred to as the Nuclear Infrastructure Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement or NIPEIS). According to DOE, the NIPEIS evaluated the potential environmental impacts associated with the possible expansion of the department's nuclear irradiation capabilities for accommodating the projected growth in production of medical and industrial isotopes, producing plutonium-238 to support future National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space missions, and accomplishing civilian nuclear energy research and development activities. The proposed irradiation facilities included facilities that were currently operating, those that could be brought on line, or those that could be constructed and operated to meet DOE's nuclear infrastructure mission requirements. Restarting FFTF was one of the alternatives under consideration. For many years FFTF was a "reactor in search of a mission." In 1996 it was saved only 48 hours before permanent shutdown, after which DOE proposed using it to produce tritium, the radioactive hydrogen in nuclear bombs. But it was decided later to do that work in Tennessee instead. The Society of Nuclear Medicine endorsed the need for more U.S. facilities to produce medical isotopes, but it did not give particular endorsement to the FFTF plan.

FFTF ROD can be found in the US Federal Register at:

In a related development, DOE announced on 19 January 2001 that the liquid metal sodium coolant from Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II), at its Idaho Falls nuclear site (INEEL), has been completely drained from the reactor vessel, thus reaching a major milestone in demonstrating safe shut-down of a sodium cooled nuclear reactor. A DOE briefing says that EBR-II was turned off in September 1994, and Argonne National Laboratories (ANL) has been working to place the reactor permanently in a "radiologically and industrially safe condition" as required by Congress. Completing the sodium drain makes it technically impossible to re-start the reactor in the future. Project Director Paul Henslee said "This has been a complicated process that no one ever has done before. Other sodium cooled reactors in the world have been shut down, but none has been done with this level of care and preparation for the future."

The sodium coolant is being chemically reacted with moisture in a controlled environment at a special facility constructed at Argonne for that purpose. The resulting sodium hydroxide will be disposed of in a standard low-level radioactive waste disposal site. Argonne is ahead of schedule for completing EBR-II sodium treatment by April 2001.

EBR-II operated from 1964 until the 1994 decision to suspend advanced reactor research in the United States. During its 30 years of operation as a test reactor, DOE says that the operation of the 20 MWe reactor resulted in several significant scientific contributions, including demonstration that nuclear reactors can be designed to use the natural properties of materials rather than engineered systems to prevent overheating and meltdown. ANL-the first in the United States-and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory are the lead laboratories for the DOE’s nuclear reactor research program.

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