Sunday, March 13

Help Save An American Treasure

America is a land of treasures: our National Parks, the museums and monuments of Washington DC, Lady Liberty raising her lamp before the Golden Door, the Golden Gate Bridge for that matter, and many, many more. But none are more valuable a treasure than the Fast Flux Test Facility in Hanford, Washington.

What's that, you ask? Well, it's a world-class nuclear research reactor. The only facility in the United States with the capability to test fuel and components for advanced nuclear breeder and fusion reactors, to expand our knowledge of neutrons and, perhaps more immediately necessary, to produce medical isotopes.

But in 1990, the United States Department of Energy decided to close it down because someone in charge couldn't imagine that it could be useful in the future. As DOE put it, there was no long-term mission to justify its operating costs. Unfortunately, that kind of blind shortsightedness has prevailed over the past 15 years and soon the installation will be totally disabled.

Did you know:
Nuclear energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions -- in 1999 20 percent of all energy consumed was environmentally clean nuclear energy?
That much nuclear waste can be recycled and used again?
That nuclear isotopes used in medicines and diagnostic procedures are produced only from the FFTF? Canada produces some medical radioisotopes but it does not supply the US with crucial research isotopes or a huge and diverse array of medical and industrial isotopes that we need.

When the FFTF opened in 1982, it tested materials and fuel components for fast breeder and fusion reactors under actual operating conditions so their performance was thoroughly tested before they were built into new reactors. It was used to transmute high-level nuclear waste, it tested space fuel systems and produced 60 special isotopes for medical and industrial use.

Nuclear reactors are an efficient way to make steam from water, which turns turbines that turn generators and produce energy. A single pellet of uranium fuel (1.6 grams) generates as much electricity as 6.15 tons of coal. Necessary heat comes from nuclear fission -- consecutive chain reactions of neutrons. FFTF has the same characteristics as that type of nuclear reactor but it was used to test components and fuel to better understand neutrons.

Nuclear energy and nuclear research are of vital interest to the social and economic welfare of America. But unfortunately not immune to politics and politicians. In 1993 the billion-dollar facility was ordered closed. Then, on the possibility that it might be used to produce trillium for the weapons program, it was put on "stand-by" by the US Department of Energy. In 1998, the shutdown proceeded because the trillium wasn't needed. A deadline of June 30, 2005 was set to finish draining the last of the sodium.

Once that is done, the facility cannot be restarted.

Does America need the Fast Flux Test Facility?

Only if America needs inexpensive, clean, nonpetroleum energy.
Only if America needs medicines and medical diagnostical procedures to save thousands of lives every day.
Only if America needs to learn more about the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Only if America doesn't want to find itself at the mercy of France and Canada for desperately needed isotopes from which to make life-saving medicines.

The old excuse that there's no use for the facility is no longer valid. A newspaper report says,
potential users of isotopes believe the reactor would be able to produce large quantities of high-quality isotopes at a reasonable cost because many missions could be carried out at once.

Most respondents said they would purchase a sizable percentage of their isotopes from FFTF. They include four research centers: Children's Hospital in Boston, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Garden State Cancer Center in Belleville, N.J., and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. In addition four companies using isotopes for medical or other products said they would buy a large portion of them from FFTF.

Three medical centers doing research using isotopes for medical uses indicated there was a dire need for sufficient quantities of high-quality isotopes.

Some of the most promising research uses radioactive isotopes, which can be produced at reactors such as FFTF, to target cancer more selectively than more conventional radiation treatments. The isotopes and their carriers can be used to find and kill cancer cells that have migrated throughout the body and can kill cancer cells with less damage to nearby healthy cells.
The survey also found that several companies would prefer to buy their isotopes from U.S. sources. They include Syncor, a 2,500-employee company that distributes medical isotopes to 146 nuclear pharmacies around the world.

The report also noted a previous finding by Frost and Sullivan -- that demand for U.S. medical isotopes is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 12.4 percent.

Some of the potential for growth is based on isotopes becoming available for research and then products being developed and marketed. That's reflected in the growth of sales of yttrium 90, an isotope obtained from nuclear waste at Hanford. Sales of yttrium 90 increased from less than $250,000 in 1996 to about $4.5 million in 2001.

We can all help put this reactor back into business. Write your congressman/woman, your senators, Sec'y Abraham of the US Department of Energy, newspapers, radio, television, magazines and ask them to support the reactivation of America's only Fast Flux Test Facility. A grass roots movement will make a difference.

No comments: