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Source: Newsday

Stimulus funds to aid dismantling of Brookhaven reactors


Posted: May 4, 2009
Originally Published: May 3, 2009

A 25-foot tall cube made of graphite at one of Brookhaven National Laboratory's closed research nuclear reactors is so radioactive that robot arms will be needed to take it apart.

Nearby, at another shuttered reactor, workers will soon cut off the domed building's water and power supply as they prepare it for a 65-year sleep to allow for radioactive decay before the reactor vessel is removed.

Now $42 million in federal stimulus money awarded last month will allow the Upton lab to speed the process of dismantling two of the lab's three historic reactors.

The graphite reactor was the world's first research-only reactor, while the high-flux beam reactor supplied scientists from all over the world with neutron beams for nearly three decades. The job has an estimated $178 million price tag, excluding taking apart the second reactor 65 years later.

"We have been engaged for over 10 years in cleanups that were related to surface and groundwater," said Michael Bebon, the lab's deputy director for operations. "The next step is decontamination and decommission."

Lab officials said the stimulus cash would allow them to complete work in two years that otherwise might have taken until 2020 due to a lack of funding.

Symbols of the lab's atomic age achievements, the reactors came to embody Long Island's relationship with the promises and perils of nuclear facilities after the defeat of the Shoreham nuclear power plant. For all the 1980s controversy surrounding Shoreham, three nuclear reactors had operated for decades on Long Island before that, and two of them chugged along for years afterward - all at the Brookhaven Lab.

Leak into groundwater

In the late 1990s, news that tritium-laced water from the high-flux reactor had seeped into groundwater spurred environmental advocates and neighborhood groups to lobby for more protection of groundwater and the Peconic River. Ultimately that reactor was shut down in 1999, and federal officials also agreed to a complete cleanup of all radioactive material at the graphite reactor, which closed in 1969. A smaller medical reactor was shut in 2000 and awaits decommissioning.

The changes please critics who once said the lab's pursuit of science trumped environmental considerations. Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment praised the lab's progress on cleaning up the graphite reactor. "It's the highest level of radioactivity to be cleaned up to date at the facility," she said, "and it's the most delicate operation."

The work will help close a chapter in the history of an institution founded in 1947 in large part to provide scientists with a peacetime reactor for atomic research. The lab has since shifted from reactors to newer tools such as accelerators and branched out into research on solar power and nanotechnology.

But right after World War II, "if you didn't have a reactor, you couldn't do forefront physics," said lab historian Robert Crease, chairman of the philosophy department at Stony Brook University.

Reactor dates to 1950

Opened in 1950, the first reactor at Upton ran on uranium placed inside the graphite pile - the 25-square-foot cube formed from more than 60,000 graphite blocks. The pile helped control fission by slowing neutrons created when the atoms split; steel rods inserted into the pile absorbed excess neutrons.

Scientists protected by a 5-foot thick concrete-and-steel shield used the remaining neutrons for experiments. They blasted samples and lab animals with neutron beams to learn more about atomic structure and the effects of radiation. Over time much of the building, cooling system and soil below became contaminated.

The graphite reactor was supplanted in 1965 by a more sophisticated model - the high-flux beam reactor. It created intense neutron beams more efficiently and with less waste and radiation. Scientists accessed the subatomic particles through ports on the second floor, which was crammed with experimental equipment during its heyday.

On a recent tour, empty fuel rod racks sat submerged at the bottom of the fuel pool like relics of a nuclear Atlantis. Up on the top floor, where armed guards once stood sentry over the control room, dusty banks of dials, switches and knobs hearken back to the pre-digital era.

Lab officials said radioactive materials from decommissioning the reactors pose little danger to the public or lab employees. The material is shipped off by truck or rail, in compliance with federal department of transportation standards, to disposal sites in Nevada and Utah.

At the graphite reactor, the lab is building a giant erector set of beams to support the robot arms that will open up the bioshield and extract the graphite blocks. The operation will be draped in thick plastic to prevent contamination from migrating from the site; the graphite should be gone by January of 2010.

Many of the lab employees supervising the end-stage had once kept the reactors humming. Their feelings are bittersweet. "It's disappointing," said Mark Davis, a 15-year veteran of the high flux beam reactor who now is the project manager presiding over its demise. "But it's exciting to be taking it apart. Nobody knows the facility better than the people who operated it."