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Aging Plutonium Producer To Be Mothballed

February 17, 1988

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) _ After months of debate, the U.S. Energy Department has decided not to restart the flawed and aging N Reactor, one of four reactors supplying the U.S. nuclear arsenal with bomb-grade plutonium.

The N reactor has been closed since January 1987 for about $70 million worth of safety improvements prompted by the nuclear disaster that killed 31 people at the similarly designed Soviet nuclear plant at Chernobyl.

Energy Secretary John Herrington announced Tuesday the reactor at the Hanford nuclear reservation will be placed on ″cold standby″ status, forcing about 2,600 workers to be laid off in the next two years.

″This decision signals the end of the plutonium production mission at the Hanford site,″ said Mike Lawrence, Hanford operations manager for the Energy Department.

Plans for the mothballing of the reactor will be included in the Reagan administration’s proposed budget that will be sent to Congress Thursday.

A report prepared last year for the Energy Department projected that a gradual phase-out of plutonium-producing operations at Hanford by 1996 would result in the loss of more than 13,800 jobs in the state.

Gov. Booth Gardner and members of the state’s congressional delegation pledged to seek a way to cushion the economic shock.

But Sen. Dan Evans, R-Wash., said, ″Frankly, the most likely type of aid to come will be unemployment benefits.″

Herrington said the decision to mothball the reactor was based on a secret Department of Defense review of the nation’s future need for plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

The Energy Department said demand for plutonium could be met by three reactors at the Savannah River Plant near Aiken, S.C., and through plutonium recovery from nuclear weapons retired as a result of the recent U.S.-Soviet treaty.

The Savannah River reactors are running at 50 percent power because of safety concerns.

The N Reactor, operated for the Energy Department by Westinghouse Inc., shares several design characteristics with the Chernobyl plant, including graphite in the reactor core to moderate nuclear fission and lack of a containment dome.

U.S. officials say the N Reactor, operated for the Energy Department by Westinghouse Inc., was considerably safer than the one at Chernobyl.

The fate of the reactor, the last of nine plutonium producers that have operated at Hanford since 1944, had been mired in controversy. Proponents said the nation needed the plutonium while opponents contended it did not, and that the reactor was unsafe.

The ″cold standby″ status will begin next year shortly after the safety improvements are completed and tested. The reactor could be restarted, but that would take up to three years, Lawrence said.

The N reactor employs 3,300 of Hanford’s 14,000 workers. The site is the biggest employer in the nearby cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, which have a combined population of about 130,000.

″State agencies will do everything they can to help those who will be affected by the shutdown,″ Gardner said.

Rep. Don Bonker said he and Sen. Brock Adams, both Democrats, planned to introduce a ″military waste cleanup bill that we hope will provide thousands of high-skilled jobs.″

Over 40 years of defense wastes are temporarily stored in tanks at the site. Under cold standby status, fuel will be removed from the reactor and inspection and maintenance programs continued, the Energy Department said.

Related plutonium processing plants, which employ more than 3,000 Hanford workers, will be gradually phased out in the 1990s as the stockpiled plutonium is exhausted, Lawrence said.

The decision to close the reactor ended a period of uncertainty for local officials and plant workers.

″I’m just glad that we finally know what the decision is,″ said Richland Mayor John Poynor. ″We’ll survive this and come out stronger for it.″

″The reality of it hasn’t hit home yet,″ said Stan Waggoner, an N Reactor technician who learned of the decision as he came off the afternoon shift Tuesday.

Hanford was built in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project to produce atomic bombs. The N Reactor began operations in 1963.

At more than 4,000 megawatts of thermal power, the N Reactor has the highest operating power of any U.S. reactor.