This story was published Tuesday, April 18th, 2006
By Annette Cary, Herald staff writer
The leaders who made Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility a reality came back to walk beneath the reactor's dome Monday.
"I've frequently said it is a beautiful reactor," said former Rep. Mike McCormack, D-Wash., who fought a tough battle for money for FFTF. "And its mission was spectacularly successful."
It was a bittersweet commemoration of the 400-megawatt research reactor, the federal government's largest and most modern reactor.
Those who led efforts to pay for, design, build and operate the reactor gathered to celebrate the designation of the reactor as a National Nuclear Historic Landmark by the American Nuclear Society.
But work is continuing to permanently shut down the reactor, after Democratic and Republican administrations decided it has no financially viable mission.
"Totally depressed," was how Gene Astley, head of the design effort for the reactor, described his feelings as he walked through the reactor building.
But what supporters of FFTF see as a premature end to the reactor does not diminish its accomplishments.
Mike Lawrence, a former Department of Energy Hanford manager, said the reactor seemed to be one of the few things that didn't cause problems at the nuclear reservation during its years of operations.
Radiation exposure to operators was 1/100th of commercial power reactors, according to the American Nuclear Society. It had the best conduct of operations record of any reactor in the DOE complex. And it established a world record for fuel performance.
Its production, measured in isotopes and research knowledge, also was remarkable.
It produced high quality, rare radioactive isotopes for medicine and industry. It advanced the fuels and materials development for nuclear power for space missions. And, in what may be its most timely contribution, advanced knowledge about nuclear reactor components, materials and fuels.
If the nation is going to move forward with a nuclear energy program, it will be a breeder reactor program, McCormack said.
"And the work done here at FFTF will be a critical step toward that program," he said.
FFTF was built to develop fast flux breeder reactor technology, which would allow reactors to use fuel to produce energy and also to produce more fissionable materials for more fuel.
Getting it built was a battle.
Astley was assigned by the national laboratory in Richland to come up with a plan that would be submitted as an unsolicited proposal to DOE's predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.
But the head of the AEC already favored building the Fast Reactor Test project, or FARET, a small reactor similar to the Experimental Breeder Reactor II in Idaho, Astley said.
It was a proposal that lacked vision, Astley believed.
He took his proposal to the commission that ran the AEC, with Glenn Seaborg as it chairman, and won its support. After he showed the commission a letter that ordered him to stop all work toward the FFTF, the head of the AEC resigned within weeks, Astley remembered.
Astley received a new letter authorizing him to proceed with the FFTF project.
McCormack led the congressional battles for money for the reactor during an intense struggle to keep the nation's breeder reactor program alive in the 1970s.
He helped keep the breeder reactor program alive through President Jimmy Carter's administration, even though Carter opposed it. But it was killed in the 1980s during the Reagan administration - with McCormack no longer in office - when President Ronald Reagan did not want to commit to any long-term expenses, he said.
FFTF was authorized under President Lyndon Johnson, appropriated under President Richard Nixon, built under Presidents Ford and Carter and went critical under Reagan.
Although the nation no longer supported the breeder reactor program after its first year of operations, FFTF continued to operate for a decade, performing research and producing isotopes.
"Even its shutdown was accomplished with grace," said John Nolan, Westinghouse Hanford Co. president during FFTF operations.
The designation of the reactor as a National Nuclear Historic Landmark is a tribute to those who created the design and followed a disciplined operations approach, Nolan said.
"I think closing it, terminating its operation, was a great loss to the people of this country," McCormack said.
No sooner had a hole been drilled through the core support structure of the reactor, than President George W. Bush began talking about the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program, said Harold McFarlane, president-elect of the American Nuclear Society. The drilling makes a restart of the reactor highly unlikely.
There's been a sudden revival in the West of interest in sodium-cooled, fast reactors, he said.
"A lot is known because of FFTF, but a lot of research needs to be done," he said.
News | History | Related Links | Opinions
Press Releases | Documents
© 2006 Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed