Washington, DC --- The Department of Energys decision yesterday to permanently deactivate the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) marks the end of a decades-long pursuit by the United States of proliferation-prone nuclear breeder reactors capable of producing more plutonium than they consume.
The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) hailed DOEs decision to terminate this last vestige of the breeder program. For nearly a decade, NCI has urged DOE to decommission the FFTF on nonproliferation, economic and environmental grounds---most recently in DOEs formal restart review process.
Termination of FFTF is a victory for nuclear non-proliferation and should serve as a signal to the few remaining countries still pursuing breeder reactors that their programs are expensive dead ends, said Tom Clements, Executive Director of NCI. This decision is a boost to nonproliferation efforts that have extended over decades to halt the pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle based on weapons-usable plutonium.
A cornerstone of the ambitious breeder program was the sodium-cooled FFTF, built at the Hanford nuclear site in the 1970s and operated from 1982 to1992. When the Reagan Administration terminated plans to build a prototype breeder at DOEs Oak Ridge site, the mission of FFTF was thrown into doubt. Operation FFTF was halted in 1992 due to the lack of a mission, but it has taken another decade for DOE to finally pull the plug on this last vestige of the failed breeder program. The search for missions for aging and unneeded facilities is a chronic problem at DOE and such was the case for FFTF, resulting in a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars for the taxpayer, said Clements.
FFTF was being considered by DOE for production of isotopes for medical and industrial purposes, but neither public nor private interest in such production materialized. DOE is expected to issue a final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on isotope production and FFTF restart in mid-December, with a Record of Decision in mid-January. Draining of the sodium coolant, an important step toward decommissioning the reactor, is expected to begin in mid-2001.
With commencement of the draining of sodium from the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR II) in Idaho on September 1, 2000, FFTF remained the last reactor associated with the terminated Clinch River Breeder Reactor program. With decisions now taken to deactivate both of these U.S. sodium-cooled fast reactors, only France, Japan, Russia and India are left with active breeder programs. France is expected to close its last breeder (Phenix) in the coming years, but Japans Science and Technology Agency (STA) finalized a plan this week to restart its Monju breeder reactor, which was closed on December 8, 1995 after a severe accident involving leakage of the inflammable, explosive sodium coolant.
Russias BN-600 breeder, in Sverdlovsk (Siberia), remains in operation and Russia continues to pursue a larger breeder, the BN-800, although no domestic or international funds have materialized for that risky undertaking. Russia also operates a smaller breeder, the BOR-60 at a Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) research facility at Dimitrivograd. Both of these reactors may be used in the weapons plutonium disposition program undertaken between Russia and the U.S. though funding and liability issues remain unresolved.
In its draft PEIS, DOE had proposed operation of FFTF beginning in the seventh year of operation with mixed plutonium-uranium oxide fuel (MOX) imported from the defunct German breeder program. The fuel from the Kalkar (SNR 300) breeder reactor, which is now stored in the plutonium storage bunker at Hanau, Germany and in Dounreay, Scotland, will now have to remain in Europe for long-term management.
NCI has proposed that the Kalkar fuel, which contains about 1100 kilograms of plutonium, be used in a project to demonstrate the can-in-canister immobilization technique in which cans of ceramic plutonium are immobilized in large casks of glassified, high-level nuclear waste. NCI advocates that the immobilization program now being developed by DOE for disposal of some excess military plutonium, serve as a model for disposal of the 140 tonnes of civilian weapons-usable plutonium being stockpiled at the state-owned reprocessing facilities of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) and Frances Cogema.