Science loses out as public opinion becomes critical

The closure of a leading research reactor in the US last week gave Britain’s nuclear engineers and scientists a sharp reminder of how decisive public opinion can be on their industry’s fortunes. US material scientists are up in arms over the decision by energy secretary Bill Richardson to shut down the high-flux beam reactor at […]

The closure of a leading research reactor in the US last week gave Britain’s nuclear engineers and scientists a sharp reminder of how decisive public opinion can be on their industry’s fortunes.

US material scientists are up in arms over the decision by energy secretary Bill Richardson to shut down the high-flux beam reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York.

Richardson decided to curtail a protracted procedure to assess the environmental impact of a restart of the reactor, on standby since early 1997 when a small amount of radioactive tritium was found to have leaked from its fuel storage tank. The energy secretary declared that the 34-year-old reactor would remain shut.

Richardson’s move showed yet again that scientific argument will not necessarily prevail with elected officials on nuclear issues in the face of intransigent public opposition.

It is likely to reinforce the belated recognition by the UK nuclear industry that public acceptance will be vital to its future plans for matters such as the deep underground disposal of radioactive waste to fuel modifications to extend the operating lives of Britain’s oldest reactors.

The Brookhaven reactor was used by hundreds of researchers as a neutron source to study the crystalline structure of advanced materials: it had played a central role, for example, in the development of high-temperature superconductors. Scientists had been arguing with local residents ever since the 1997 leak about the prudence of resuming its operation.

The Energy Secretary said there was no point spending $20m a year to keep the reactor in mothballs, when the US Congress was unlikely to allow it to restart. Local congressman Michael Forbes has successfully introduced legislation to prevent it restarting in each of the past three years.

The scientists’ outrage at the decision was heightened by the fact that laboratory management first learned that the reactor was to be permanently shut down from newspaper reporters, who picked up the story in Washington.

`There is a lot of dismay at the laboratory,’ says Steve Shapiro, a top physicist at Brookhaven. `There was a well-defined process, and it was abrogated. My concern is that other decisions about science could be made in a similar way.’

Bob Birgeneau, dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, many of whose researchers used the Brookhaven reactor, described the decision as a tragedy.

Birgeneau and others see the closure as a blow to US capability in neutron science – one of a diminishing number of significant areas of research where European facilities are clearly superior to those in the US.

Plans are under way to build a world-class neutron source (based on a particle accelerator, rather than a reactor) at the Oak Ridge laboratory in Tennessee, but the project will not be completed for many years and has already been delayed by funding constraints at the department of energy.

The closure of such a valuable research facility demonstrates the considerable potency of the anti-nuclear lobby in parts of the US, even in cases where the risks to the public seem vanishingly small, and the societal benefits of operation may be considerable.

The densely populated Long Island has a tradition of rejecting small environmental risks – a nuclear power station there was dismantled before it even started operating in response to public concerns after the Three Mile Island accident.

Some scientists at Brookhaven fear that other facilities there which produce tiny amounts of radiation – including particle accelerators and a small medical research reactor – could eventually fall victim to this tradition, threatening 4,000 jobs at one of the US’s premier scientific laboratories.