Why the HFBR is Being Decommissioned
The High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) is being decommissioned because the Department of Energy (DOE) decided in 1999 that it would be permanently closed. The reactor was shut down in 1997 after tritium from a leak in the spent-fuel pool was found in the groundwater.
The HFBR, which had operated from 1965 to 1996, was used solely for scientific research, providing neutrons for materials science, chemistry, biology, and physics experiments. The reactor was shut down for routine maintenance in November of 1996. In January 1997, tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen and a by-product of reactor operations, was found in groundwater monitoring wells immediately south of the HFBR. The tritium concentrations were above state and federal drinking water standards. Operations at the HFBR were suspended while the source of the tritium was investigated. The investigation revealed a small leak in the pool where spent reactor fuel was stored. BNL subsequently determined that tritiated water had been leaking from the spent-fuel pool located in the basement of the HFBR building for more than a decade.
Response to the leak was swift. After installing 140 groundwater monitoring wells and analyzing over 1,000 samples in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, the extent of the tritium contamination was defined. Groundwater containing tritium at levels above the drinking eater standard was found to extend approximately 2,200 feet south of the reactor; still well within the BNL site. In May 1997, a pump-and-recharge system was installed at the southern edge of the contamination to prevent it from spreading further and confine it to Laboratory property.
While BNL addressed tritium contamination and groundwater issues, the Department of Energy grappled with the decision of what to do with the reactor, which had been placed in stand-by mode. In 1998, Congress directed DOE to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to evaluate the effect that the HFBR had on the environment. BNL began the EIS process, but in November of 1999, before the document was completed, DOE decided to permanently close the HFBR. Then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson cited the length of time it would take to complete the EIS, a limited budget, and the availability of other neutron research facilities as the reasons for his decision.
Safe, Secure Shutdown
The HFBR complex has been placed and is being maintained in a safe and stable condition. From 1999 through 2006 many actions were taken throughout the 13-acre HFBR complex to prepare it for decommissioning, including the removal of contaminated structures, hazardous materials, and radioactively contaminated equipment and components. Most of the experimental research equipment is being reused by other BNL facilities, by other U.S. government or university laboratories, or by researchers in South Korea, England, and Australia. To learn more about these actions, click here.
Groundwater Remediation and Monitoring
While the cost, schedule, and scope of the work needed to complete the shut down of the HFBR was being determined, BNL continued to address the tritium contamination. Extensive groundwater characterization was conducted between 1997 and 1999 to determine the extent of the contamination. The leak was confined to Lab property and both the EPA and Suffolk County Department of Health Services agreed that it posed no threat to BNL employees or to public health, nor did it affect any drinking water supplies.
The pump-and-recharge system installed in 1997 operated until 2000. Installed near the southern edge of the 2,200 foot-long plume, the system was designed to remove the groundwater containing tritium from the aquifer and pump it to a recharge basin further north. There, the water was allowed to re-enter the aquifer. Groundwater monitoring showed that this system was effective in halting the southward migration of the tritium plume at a point approximately 3,500 feet north of the site boundary. It ensured that any tritium in the groundwater would be below drinking water standards before it reached the Lab boundary. The system was turned off in September 2000 and placed in stand-by mode since groundwater data indicated that the plume was not growing.
Additional groundwater remediation was conducted at the HFBR in 2000 and 2001, when a low-flow pumping system extracted the highest levels of tritium from the groundwater near the reactor. A total of approximately 90,000 gallons of water were removed from the aquifer and disposed of off the Lab site.
Monitoring of the HFBR groundwater contamination has continued in accordance with the Operable Unit III Record of Decision which details the selected remedial actions for areas of groundwater contamination at BNL. In November 2006, groundwater triggers for tritium were reached and it was recommended that the pump-and-recharge system be restarted. Pumping of the plume will continue until tritium concentrations at the extraction point drop back below the drinking water standard.
Spent Fuel Pool Remediation
In addition to the groundwater cleanup, the spent fuel pool in the basement of the HFBR (shown at right) was also addressed. Between May and September 1997, BNL removed all of the spent-fuel elements that had been stored in the spent-fuel pool and shipped them to DOE's Savannah River Site, in preparation for pumping out the water. Over a period of two weeks in December 1997, approximately 65,000 gallons of water were transferred from the pool to double-walled storage tanks and were then shipped off site to a licensed disposal facility. Later, a stainless steel liner was installed in the spent-fuel pool to prevent further leaks, in case the reactor was restarted or the pool was needed for decommissioning activities.
Planning for Decommissioning
Many planning studies, including a preliminary assessment, a site investigation, facility characterization, a metalurgical analysis, and risk assessments have been conducted since the reactor was shut down.
In 2000, the HFBR was transferred to the Environmental Restoration Projects Division for surveillance and maintenance pending the development of a plan and schedule for decommissioning. DOE and BNL worked with local, state, and federal regulatory agencies to develop the plan. A Feasibility Study (FS) and Proposed Remedial Action Plan (PRAP) that outline final decontamination and decommissioning steps for the HFBR have been prepared. The public is encouraged to participate in this process. Learn how to participate.
Last Modified: May 22, 2009