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Source: Riverhead Review

Decommissioning of nation's first peacetime research reactor completed at BNL

Posted: July 19, 2012
Originally Published: July 19, 2012

The 13-year, $148 million process concluded in June with the final shipment of nearly 24 million pounds of radioactive waste removed from the site, Brookhaven National Laboratory officials said.

The Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor, on line from August 1950 until June 1968, was the site of more than 25,000 scientific experiments. The experiments and research conducted at the reactor led to many major discoveries and developments, including the most commonly used medical radioisotope in the world, said BNL spokesperson Pete Genzer.

The 23.9 million pounds of radioactive waste, containing 8,044 curies of radiation were removed from the reactor and sent for disposal to department of energy facilities in Nevada and Utah in 345 manifested waste shipments, each containing numerous packages, Genzer said.

It is the first reactor of its size to undergo removal of its graphite core.

The 700-ton reactor core contained 60,000 individually machined graphite blocks of different sizes piled into a cube 25 feet on each side, surrounded by a four-foot thick concrete containment barrier and six inches of battleship armor plating that covered the core and acted as a shield around the graphite.

“We completed a major project, surgically removing a lot of radioactivity and cleaning the environment of the legacy of an old radioactive facility," said George Goode, BNL assistant director for environment, safety and health. "It was a big-budget job with a lot of challenge.”

One option discussed early on was to entomb the entire structure and leave it in place. That plan was not well-received because it would leave highly radioactive material sitting atop the island's drinking water aquifer, said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment and a member of the BNL community advisory council.

Lab officials ultimately decided in April 2005 to remove all the contaminated material and cap everything inside and around the building.

Step one was to encapsulate the entire structure in a leak-proof, reverse-vacuum containment barrier so no radiation could escape, Goode said.

Next, the top was taken off the bio-shield and the graphite blocks inside were “mined” out via a remote-controlled excavator and crane. Using the excavator, workers loaded the graphite blocks into “super sacks” made of a heavy-duty polypropylene that were then transferred by crane into 250 steel containers for shipment to the the Nevada test site for disposal.

Goode said one of the toughest jobs was breaking apart the four-foot thick cement barrier.

“It was made of reinforced concrete laced through-and-through with steel aggregate about half the size of ping pong balls," he said. "We began using a 3,000-pound hydraulic hammer to smash it apart. The wall was so tough that hammer just bounced off. We held meetings, consulted with experts, and worked to come up with a new technological approach,” he said. “In the end, we just got a bigger hammer, and it worked fine.”

The concrete, the armored steel plate and all the equipment used within the containment area were bagged and shipped to DOE disposal sites.

Esposito said the removal was done “in the most protected way to insure the safety of our drinking water and the whole of the environment. This was a very complicated procedure and the material inside that reactor was really, really hot."

The original building that housed the reactor remains on site in Upton, as does the smokestack. The stack will be removed by 2020, Goode said.

To prevent possible groundwater contamination, an environmentally engineered cap — layers of low permeability material, sand, and asphalt — has been constructed, and an extensive monitoring system is in place.

“We have an extremely good protection program," Goode said. "I’d venture to say we have more environmental monitoring here at BNL than any place in the world.”

Esposito said CCE is "thrilled with the lab’s progress." Over the years, BNL has dramatically improved its stewardship of the environment, reducing its toxic output and improving its safety record, according to CCE.

The story of Brookhaven’s graphite research reactor begins with the story of the lab itself, at the start of the “atomic age” in the late 1940s. Camp Upton was decommissioned as an army base in 1947 and Brookhaven National Lab established on the site to explore the beneficial use of atomic energy.

Construction on the graphite reactor began that very year and by August 1950 the reactor was operational.

Over the next 18 years atomic scientists used the reactor for ground-breaking research. They found they could authenticate rare works of art and probe agricultural seed structures, inventing the ruby
red grapefruit and helping fuel the “green revolution” that’s fed the world’s burgeoning population for the past 50 years.

BGRR researchers explored the wear and other miniscule characteristics of engine piston rings, which led to the development of multi-grade motor oils, such as 10W-30, now used in automobiles.

As the space age was taking off, they probed the possible effects of cosmic radiation on satellites before the spacecraft were launched into the heavens.

Perhaps the BGRR’s most far-reaching accomplishment was the development and production of medical isotopes, especially technetium-99m, the leading radiotracer used in the diagnosis of heart disease and other ailments in millions of people each year.

By the late 1960s technology had overtaken the reactor and it was functionally obsolete. It was placed on standby in June 1968 and permanently shut down in 1969, when the removal of the reactor's fuel rods was begun. By 1972 the last fuel element had been repurposed to the DOE's Savannah River facility.

But that left a big brick building, Building 701, complete with a 325-foot smokestack and 12,000 tons of the highly radioactive materials that needed to be rendered safe.

"It was cold and dark and maintained. It was not a large risk at BNL or to the public,” Goode said.

Over the next 30 years, while consideration was given to dismantling the facility, other higher-priority Superfund sites and limited financial resources put the BGRR well down on the list of projects to tackle.

Federal funding, including more than $58 million in stimulus funding, was allocated to decommissioning the BGRR, at a cost of $74.6 million to remove the reactor and steel/concrete bioshield and about $148 million overall since 1999.