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Lawmakers: Don't Reopen Reactor
By Lauren Terrazzano. STAFF WRITER
In a move that scientists from across the nation said could
jeopardize research in the country, U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and
U.S. Rep. Michael Forbes yesterday called for the permanent
shutdown of Brookhaven National Laboratory's nuclear reactor,
blaming a "culture of arrogance" they charge has fueled a public
health hazard and undermined the laboratory's other work.
"This is the only prudent, sensible course of action if we are
going to protect the public's health," said D'Amato, speaking at a
morning news conference in Mineola with Forbes on their plan to
introduce legislation yesterday to stop the reactivation of the
high-flux beam reactor at the laboratory. The reactor has been
closed since December, 1996, after a pool used to store its used
fuel had been found to be leaking radioactive tritium into
groundwater. The lab has maintained that drinking water has been
unaffected and the leak has posed no public health threat.
"There is little patience for any more of the revelations we've
seen almost weekly at this facility," said Forbes, who along with
D'Amato said the laboratory's "public be damned" attitude dated as
far back as 1986, when elevated levels of tritium contamination
were first discovered.
However, Peter Bond, the laboratory's interim director, called the
proposal disheartening and the charges inaccurate, saying he had
hoped that Forbes and D'Amato would have waited until the
Department of Energy decides whether to reopen the reactor, a
decision that is expected to be made in January after extensive
community input. "I'm obviously disappointed they've chosen to
short-circuit the process," Bond said.
Nearly 20 reactor employees sat silently at the conference
yesterday, at times shaking their heads at the politicians and
saying that the proposed permanent shutdown was more about
election-year politics and would squelch immense scientific
progress that has resulted from the reactor's use.
"It's a national asset," said Terri Kneitel, an engineer at the
reactor since 1991 who also said she fears losing her job. "I'm
Forbes said he originally envisioned reopening the reactor after
assurances that health, safety and environmental concerns would be
addressed. "But what made me decide conclusively is related to a
series of recent events, stemming from late July when reluctant
laboratory officials verified leaking tritium from the sewage
treatment plant into the Peconic River system."
Environmentalists and residents who live in the surrounding area
said they were thrilled with the announcement. "Today, I'm
breathing a sigh of relief," said Sarah Nuccio, 41, of Manorville,
who lives just a few miles from the laboratory and who has been
vocal about what she terms as its unwelcome presence in the
In a statement released yesterday, the Department of Energy's
director of the Office of Energy Research said the DOE has not made
any decision about whether to restart the reactor. "Secretary
[Federico] Pena has committed to an open decision-making process
that includes the views of the people of Long Island, the
scientific community and other interested parties," said Dr. Martha
Krebs. DOE officials said yesterday that they had no estimate of
the cost of re-starting the reactor, but laboratory officials said
it could cost about $150 million.
The laboratory's manager of its reactor division estimated Monday
it would cost about $170 million to decommission the reactor and a
half billion dollars to replace it elsewhere in the United States.
Since it was constructed 32 years ago, the reactor has been
involved in a range of scientific discoveries, including the
development of radioactive isotopes used to diagnose heart disease
in 10 million patients each year to research on enzymes that
dissolve blood clots, officials. Today, nearly 300 scientists use
the reactor, with research involving the development of tin-based
isotope that could be used to ease the pain of bone cancer
sufferers to improving telecommunications equipment.
Lab spokeswoman Mona Rowe said a permanent shutdown could also be
devastating to hundreds of other projects that use the reactor as
part of research. She said the reactor accounts for about $25
million of the laboratory's annual $400 million operating budget,
and four percent, or 150 people of its 3,000 person work force.
News of the move to permanently shut down the reactor shocked the
nation's scientific community yesterday.
"It's going to put us at a significant disadvantage with our
research," said Robert Birgeneau, dean of science at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has used the reactor a
number of times to study high temperature superconductors and
magnetic materials. "It's the premier research reactor."
Closing the reactor would mean that only two comparable reactors in
the country would remain for scientists to conduct their work: a
Department of Energy-run reactor at the Oak Ridge National
Laboratory in Tennessee and the National Institute of Standards and
Technology in Maryland.
Another alternative would be for scientists to make a costly and
inconvenient move overseas to conduct work. A facility built in
1971 and jointly operated by France, Britain and Germany in
Grenoble is most comparable to Brookhaven's high-flux beam reactor,
scientists have said. However, traveling so far could be
prohibitive, especially to academic researchers who are teaching as
well as conducting their own scientific work.
"There are substantial barriers against doing such research in
Europe. It is no way an alternative to having a reactor in this
country," said Dr. Bernhard Keimer, a physicist at Princeton
University who has used the reactor. "This is a tragedy."
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