by J. Raloff
Citing "unacceptable" safety problems and a management culture that favored science over safety, Energy Secretary Federico Peņa announced late last week that he was terminating Associated Universities' contract to run Brookhaven National Laboratory. Associated Universities, a nonprofit research organization with trustees from 26 universities, has managed this renowned Department of Energy science facility on Long Island since Brookhaven opened its doors in January 1947.
Leaking fuel storage pool. (photo: Roger Stoutenburgh/BNL)
Among the problems cited is a reactor's fuel storage pool that has been leaking water containing low concentrations of radioactive tritium into the soil for an estimated 10 years. Although the leak, discovered last January, is on the facility's grounds, residents of the area are outraged.
Peņa announced the unprecedented change in management -- his first major policy decision since taking office a month ago -- during a visit to the Upton, N.Y., laboratory on May 1. He also released a 50-page evaluation of Brookhaven's environmental and safety conduct and pledged to overhaul immediately the lab's administration and federal oversight of it.
At Peņa's request, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency began a full inspection of the lab this week. In addition, Martha Krebs, director of DOE's Office of Energy Research, has been charged with creating an "action plan" within 30 days to strengthen DOE's oversight of all its national laboratories. Peņa admitted that the agency shares much of the blame for the attitudes that allowed safety and environmental protection problems to develop at Brookhaven because it did not maintain sufficiently close oversight of Associated Universities or make the contractor directly accountable for safety.
Said Peņa, "I'm sending a message to [the residents of] Long Island -- and to our facilities nationwide" that "there need not -- and will not -- be a trade-off between award-winning scientific research and environment, safety, [or] health."
Some of the 250 scientists who had been using the lab's High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) are likely to see things differently. Their research may have to be abandoned if cleaning up low-level radioactive contamination depletes the reactor's operating budget.
HFBR, the most heavily used U.S. basic science facility for neutron studies, was shut down for routine maintenance last December. Days before it was to restart, the lab found the tritium leak.
In response to a public uproar, the lab's managers said the reactor would remain closed down while they assessed the situation. Last week, Krebs said that even though the shutdown "is a very significant loss [to science]," whether it reopens now hinges on finances.
The pledged cleanup of the tritium leak during the next 2 years is expected to cost $25 million. Lining the fuel storage pool with stainless steel -- a further measure under discussion -- could cost $10 million more. Brookhaven's $400 million budget might not stretch to pick up these costs and still finance reactor operations, says lab spokeswoman Mona S. Rowe.
At a press conference on the Brookhaven announcements, a reporter noted that the scientists who use HFBR "weren't at fault" and asked if DOE would help them find the money to move their work to reactors elsewhere. Krebs responded that it's too early to say.
DOE Assistant Secretary Tara O'Toole argued that "it is wrongheaded to say the users were not at fault." Users created an environment at Brookhaven that prompted a technician to do electrical repairs on live circuits -- and risk electrocution -- rather than shut down an experiment, she continued.
"The main message here," said O'Toole, "is that the users do have [a] responsibility for environment, safety, and health."
Office of Oversight, Department of Energy. 1997. Integrated safety management evaluation of the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Office of Environment, Safety and Health Report #EH2MGT/04-97/02SH. Available at http://tis-hq.eh.doe.gov/web/eh2/bnl/.
Pena, F. 1997. Prepared remarks from May 1, 1997, news conference at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Available at http://www.doe.gov.
Bari, R., et al. 1997. Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Safety and Health Decisionmaking at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Brookhaven National Laboratory report.
Office of Oversight, Department of Energy. 1996. Profile of Brookhaven National Laboratory. Office of Environment, Safety and Health Report. Available at http://tis-hq.eh.doe.gov/web/eh2/profiles/prof_bnlsp.html.
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