Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Both sides claimed the moral imperative at an overflow hearing Tuesday night to discuss Hanford’s possible role in a proposed new national nuclear energy program to reuse spent commercial reactor fuel.

The Department of Energy is considering the Hanford nuclear reservation among other sites across the nation for a center to recycle used nuclear fuel, a reactor to burn the recycled fuel to reduce waste and produce electricity and a research center for the project.

About 300 people packed the hearing in Pasco, with crowd sentiment favoring those who spoke in favor of a new production mission for Hanford.

“The world is going nuclear and America should as well,” Benton County Commissioner Claude Oliver said to enthusiastic applause. He was the first of 60 people signed up to speak.

But the crowd also was sprinkled with a few Mid-Columbians, along with people from Oregon and western Washington, who oppose Hanford as the site of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP.

Hanford’s mission is cleaning up contamination left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The Bush administration has proposed GNEP as a way to reduce the amount of waste that must be disposed of from nuclear reactors, to increase energy production without the greenhouse gas of fossil fuels and to help limit access to weapons-grade nuclear material elsewhere in the world. As part of GNEP’s international reach, fuel services would be supplied worldwide for generating nuclear energy without spreading enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

The program could help bring power to a huge segment of the world living in poverty, said Gerald Woodcock, speaking for the Eastern Washington Section of the American Nuclear Society.

Using Hanford facilities that taxpayers already have paid for makes economic sense, he said.

“Recognize that Hanford can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. Cleanup and a fuel recycling program can complement each other, he said.

Among proposals that could be considered at Hanford is a restart of the Fast Flux Test Facility, which is being permanently shut down.

Nuclear recycling cannot be done without testing first and without Hanford’s research reactor, FFTF, the program will have to look overseas, said Alan Waltar, the former head of the nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University. An old and possibly too-small Russian reactor could be the only choice for testing.

Many supporters of restarting the FFTF believe it also could be used to produce medical isotopes for new cancer treatments.

“The plant is very robust, flexible and forgiving,” said Sol Guttenberg, a retired manager at the reactor. DOE has a chance to rectify one of its worst decisions, shutting the reactor down, he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Sid Morrison, who serves on the executive board of Energy Northwest, said he’s long been frustrated that the nation has failed to apply modern science to handle nuclear fuel. Hanford is an ideal choice for the project, because of infrastructure already there, including at Energy Northwest.

“This is the place,” he said. “We’re ready to be players.”

But opponents of the GNEP project at Hanford questioned whether more waste should be brought to Hanford while DOE struggles to clean up the waste already there.

Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, predicted that DOE would use the program to import huge volumes of spent nuclear waste it has no place to store it and leave it at Hanford for decades.

Jack Dresser of Veterans for Peace, one of nine people who came to the meeting from Eugene, Ore., said an increase in nuclear production would add to the use of depleted uranium for weapons production. It’s the Agent Orange of the current generation, he said.

“Anyone who produces nuclear fuel plays a role in that crime,” he said.

DOE expects to make a decision on whether and how to proceed with the fuel recycling initiative by June 2008. The recycling facilities and reactor could be in full operation between 2020 and 2025.

An Oregon meeting has been added to the public hearing schedule. It will be held at 6 p.m. March 26 at the Best Western Hood River Inn in Hood River.

DOE also is accepting written comments. They may be sent to Timothy Frazier, GNEP PEIS Document Manager, Office of Nuclear Energy, Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20585-0119, or e-mailed to [email protected]. Mark envelopes and e-mails as “GNEP PEIS Comments.”