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Soviet Disaster Fallout: a Hot Debate in the U.S.

May 18, 1986|RONALD L. SOBLE and DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | Times Staff Writers

AIKEN, S.C. — Amid a peaceful setting of marshy flats and rolling hills thickly forested with pine and oak, three nuclear reactors at the Savannah River Plant near here work day and night producing most of the material needed to give U.S. bombs and missiles the explosive force of nuclear energy.

For the most part, the plants toil in near obscurity. The only serious controversy in the 33 years since the first reactor here began operating occurred in 1983 when the Department of Energy moved to restart one of the reactors after a 15-year shutdown. Anti-nuclear scientists and activists argued without success that it would be unsafe to start the reactor unless it was first enclosed in a full-scale concrete containment dome.

A National Debate

But now, as physicists and laymen the world over ponder the consequences of the Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the Savannah River Plant has become part of a national debate on the wisdom of operating nuclear reactors without containment domes, as was done at Chernobyl.

These reactors, on the banks of the Savannah River 160 miles east of Atlanta, are among eight managed by the U.S. Department of Energy for military or research purposes that do not have the massive containment structures that typify commercial nuclear reactors in the United States.

Instead, the South Carolina reactors, which are cooled by water and operate at low pressures and low temperatures, are contained in steel vessels surrounded on the sides and bottom by concrete eight feet thick. If radioactive particles escape this vessel, either in an explosion or through the top of the core, which is not covered by concrete, filters in the surrounding confinement building are designed to catch them.

Difference of Opinion

Government officials insist that the reactors do not need concrete domes because they operate at much lower pressures and temperatures than their commercial counterparts and thus an accident--such as a ruptured steam line--is much less likely to lead to a catastrophic meltdown. But critics contend that without the domes, the Savannah plant's reactors lack an essential layer of protection needed to keep deadly radioactivity from reaching the atmosphere in a serious accident.

The government estimates that it would cost about $1 billion each to install containment domes on the reactors here. Moreover, the reactors might require major redesign to conform to dome construction.

Of the other government-owned reactors without domes, one at Hanford, Wash., is already undergoing special reviews by Congress and the Department of Energy, and three research reactors in Tennessee and Idaho are considered too small to be a serious threat to the public's health, even in the worst accident imaginable.

At Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the enriched uranium for the first atomic bomb was produced, the government runs two small reactors for medical, industrial and nuclear physics research. Another reactor at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, near Idaho Falls, is used to test new nuclear fuels and coolant before they are used by the Navy or the nuclear industry.

Limited Material

These three low-pressure reactors--all less than one-tenth as powerful as modern commercial reactors--do not have enough nuclear material within them to produce a Chernobyl-type disaster, officials said. Even if contaminated materials were released from the reactor cores, the concrete-block structures and their filtration systems are considered sufficient to prevent almost all of the radioactivity from reaching the atmosphere.

But these small research reactors pale in comparison to both the size and the scope of the work being done at Savannah River, where a cluster of large nuclear reactors--each spaced at least two miles apart--supply most of the plutonium and all of the tritium for the Pentagon's nuclear arsenal, from bombs to missile and artillery warheads.

The reactors ultimately produce plutonium discs, about the size of hockey pucks, that are shipped to a weapons fabricating facility at Rocky Flats, Colo.

Plutonium Output

Just how much plutonium is produced at the Savannah plant is classified, officials here said. However, David Albright, a physicist with the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based weapons monitoring group, estimated that with just three reactors operating around the clock, the Savannah operation in one year is capable of producing plutonium equal to about 1% of the nation's stockpile.

Managed for the government by E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., the reactors at the site are designated simply by letters of the alphabet--L, K, P, C and R. Of these five, three are operating now and one was taken out of service in 1964 and remains shut down.

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