FFTF – What could a functional Fast Flux Test Facility do for the US?

A friend shared the above video about the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF). I thought it was worth sharing and discussing, though I am not sure how current it is.

The FFTF was not a shining example of government efficiency; it was initially conceived in the 1960s, finally completed in the late 1970s, started up in 1982 and shut down in 1993. It was opposed by many, including those who jealously wanted its financial resources to be spent on their pet technology. It cost several billion more than initially planned, but just as it started producing some valuable materials and test results, it was shut down. There are still those who believe that the final death knell has not been sounded, but hopes of restoration are not terribly abundant.

The FFTF was a victim of the Clinton Administration’s 1992 decision that there was no more need for advanced nuclear power research, but it was also subjected to some additional destruction during the Bush administration when a hole was drilled to allow coolant to be removed.

Original post ends here


Update (Posted December 15, 2012)

I will be using this post and the comment thread to gradually build up an information resource about the FFTF, including its current status, its potential uses, the history of the effort to destroy it, and the history of the struggle to restore it to operation.

From: Alan Waltar
Subject: FFTF
Date: December 13, 2012 1:09:00 PM EST
To: Rod Adams

Dear Rod,

I read the short note that you recently provided in Atomic Insights regarding the possibility of restarting FFTF (the Fast Flux Test Facility), located at Hanford, Washington.

I must say that I was disappointed in your review. Whereas it is true that the reactor ended up costing considerably more than the original estimate, what DOE project has ever come in on budget?

I spent a good share of my career with this machine…and when it was prematurely shut down due purely to politics, I went on a few trips around the world to see if some foreign funding could be surfaced to turn it into an international test machine. Despite the normal tendency for any scientific group to defend their own facilities, I NEVER heard a disparaging remark about the quality and capability of the FFTF. Rather, it was (and still is) recognized as the Flagship of fast spectrum test capability.

Having just participated in a DOE review of their advanced fuels program, it is abundantly clear that the U.S. needs fast spectrum test capability. There is essentially universal agreement on that point (from any energy planner seriously concerned about America’s energy future). The major problem, of course, is that building a new fast test reactor would cost several billion dollars and require probably a decade or two to get on line. In today’s world, that kind of resource is just not in the cards.

Hence, it is my conviction that a serious study should be conducted by a highly qualified, independent committee to see if the FFTF could be restarted—and the associated cost and schedule for such a restart. A DOE-sponsored study a few years ago resulted in the conclusion that it COULD be restarted, at a cost of about $500 million and 6 years. In addition to being the premier test bed for fast spectrum research, the FFTF is capable of producing a great many, badly needed medical isotopes.

I hope this helps.

Best personal regards,

Alan

It will take a considerable political effort to slow the current movement toward completed destruction of the FFTF, which will include removal of all above ground facilities and filling all of the below ground facilities with grout and concrete. Here is a quote from the recently released Tank Closure & Waste Management (DOE/EIS-0391) FINAL in section 1.4.2 titled Decisions Not to Be Made:

Deactivation of FFTF. DOE does not intend to make any further decisions regarding deactivation of FFTF as a result of this EIS. Based on previous NEPA reviews (DOE 1995a, 2000a, 2006b), DOE decided to shut down and deactivate FFTF.

Here is another quote from Section 1.6.3.2 titled Issues Identified During the “FFTF Decommissioning EIS” Scoping Process that indicates the current position of the office of the Department of Energy that has the assigned responsibility of determining what to do with the FFTF.

Issue: FFTF should be preserved for various future missions. The decision to shut down FFTF is politically driven; political pressure may yet be able to reverse the process. FFTF should not be decommissioned.

Response: Based on previous NEPA reviews (DOE 1995a, 2000a, 2006b), DOE decided to shut down and deactivate FFTF. DOE does not intend to make any further decisions regarding deactivation of FFTF.

Speaking as someone who spent 9 years working in Washington as a bureaucrat in uniform, I can testify that one of the most difficult things to do is to convince a functionary that they must reevaluate a previous decision. Actually, that statement is not completely true; it is pretty easy to convince a civil servant that they must change their planned course of action as long as the order for making that change comes from the entity that controls their budget. As our founding fathers planned, the power of the purse strings is a powerful political tool.

Here is some additional background information that might be useful if you intend to attempt to save the FFTF from complete destruction and make it possible to restore its unique capabilities without starting from scratch.

DOE Press Release Dated December 5, 2012 – Issuance of the Final Tank Closure and Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement
Note: This release announced the availability of a 6,000 page document. There is a minimum of a 30 day delay before the DOE can issue a Record of Decision (aka ROD) indicating what action it is going to take. Buried within the long document is information about the actions DOE is planning for the FFTF. In order to make it easier to locate that information, I have taken the liberty of extracting the relevant pages.

  1. Readers Guide summary of FFTF proposed actions Reader’s Guide: FFTF Decommissioning
  2. Extract from Proposed Actions: Background, Purpose and Need Sections where FFTF is discussed (1.2.5, 1.3, 1.4, 1.6.3, 1.9.2, 1.9.3, 1.10)
  3. Description of the three alternative courses of action considered Appendix E.2.3 Summary Description of FFTF Decommissioning Alternatives
    Note: Restoration of the facility to operational status was not one of the alternative courses of action considered.
  4. Details about the waste removal actions Appendix D.2 FFTF Decommissioning Alternatives

Note: It is quite likely that I have missed some sections. Please let me know if you find significant discussion of the FFTF in the Hanford EIS outside of the sections that I have posted.

Additional Resources

Commentary from Dr. Robert Schenter, National Association of Cancer Patients published on August 27, 2001 in Hanford Reach FFTF and Seaborg: Two National Treasures

Presentation from Carl Holder to the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management Environmental Management Advisory Board (EMAB) August 2006

About Rod Adams

7 Responses to “FFTF – What could a functional Fast Flux Test Facility do for the US?”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. donb says:

    At about 1:57 there is a scan across the control room in the video. I see a computer, printer and monitor that look to be around 1990 vintage.

  2. John Tucker says:

    I hear a lot of poo pooing of more interesting and sustainable reactor technology by the established nuclear power guard. You’d think of all people they would know better.

    This research is worth it. Not just for the space program either. Intermittent Renewables are having a lot more problems than anyone was led to believe and it is looking like we will be needing more nuclear power resources if a serious effort to get off fossil fuels is to be made.

    In addition fusion research probably needs to be moved back to the US. Im afraid the more level headed science oversight in Europe is giving way to the corrupt politics, and environmentally questionable policies of the scientifically incompetent Greens.

  3. Jeff S says:

    While that’s an interesting video, I have to take a bit of umbrage with the part at the end – I think trying to conflate the shutting down of the FFTF with that person’s daughter’s death from cancer a bit overstates the impact of shutting down the reactor, and is a bit propagandistic. Even if there had been more cancer funding, and the FFTF remains operational, it’s far from guaranteed her daughter would still be alive. She might feel that way, as grieving people are often prone to such sorts of thoughts, but I find it a bit irresponsible of the film producers to include that.

    That said, just how far gone is FFTF? Could it be fairly quickly and cheaply restored and brought back into operation, or has it basically been completely dismantled?

  4. Craig Smith says:

    Another nail in the coffin of FFTF was an example of the kind of disgusting politics that is rampant in the US. The Secretary of Energy at the time was Bill Richardson. He was handed the final decision to start up or shut down FFTF based on an extensive EIS. This was just about the time he announced he was going to run for Governor of New Mexico, and one of the alternatives to FFTF that was being proposed was to build a new Liquid Sodium Reactor somewhere, most likely New Mexico (mostly for the purpose of medical isotope production).
    So it is generally believed that Mr. Richardson made the decision to shutter FFTF in hopes that his state would get the lucrative new Reactor.
    In the end, no one has one.

    • Carlgh says:

      The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS–0310) and Record of Decision was signed by Secretary Richardson on his last day. It decided that Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (ATW/LANL) would follow, isotopes would be produced by others, and Pu-238 could be made elsewhere. Subsequently, ATW collapsed, isotopes supplied by importers are unavailable and/or are in short supply, and Pu-238 for space missions is/was purchased from Russia and scarcity jeopardizes future missions. Earlier Sec Richardson had made a deal with the French CEA for fast reactor R&D using FFTF. The extensive Japanese nuclear fuel experiments in FFTF were lost. The extensive irradiations of prototypical IFR metal fuel was not inspected, etc. The Decision continued to “deactivation” of the FFTF which sits – under care and maintenance.

  5. Jason C says:

    I had no idea this facility existed. Coincidentally, I just read this week a new government policy to reimburse hospitals an extra $10 is they could show the radiation cancer treatments used came from isotopes produced with low enriched as opposed to highly enriched uranium. The extra $10 was not enough of an incentive for any hospitals to bother of course, but the thought behind the policy was to make a small inroad in an anti-proliferation policy.

    It’s too bad this facility was closed so soon. Practically speaking, it was brand new. What a shame.

  6. Gary T says:

    The FFTF is officially in a de-activated state. This means that all hazardous materials and energy sources have been removed or shut-off. All systems are inerted. In this mode, it is recoverable. The referenced ‘hole’ is about 3/4″ in diameter and was carefully positioned and accomplished for preservation at a non-pressure boundary. Litigation assured that proper process be performed to decommission in the future. This has not been completed. Several business plans have been developed since shutdown which show positive financial outcome including payments into final decommissioning funds for use when its true lifetime mission is completed. These were stopped simply by politics and a political transfer of facility from DOE-NE to DOE-EM. The latter has no focus on development, only tear-down or flattening.

    Several US advanced reactor research efforts in both public and private sector are now forced to rely on foreign resources such as Russia. A Pacific Northwest private sector effort is directly submitting test materials to Russia. That’s work that should be done on US soil and except for politics, in the FFTF.

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