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The Department of Energy (DoE) said that the Hanford test reactor in Washington State, which has remained dormant since 1992, should not be reopened for the production of medical isotopes or plutonium for space missions, as was proposed. The decision is expected to be finalised in January and is seen as a victory by environmental and residents groups aiming for the closure of the entire Hanford Nuclear Reservation, known to be the US’s most contaminated nuclear site, and the main focus of the Manhattan Project – one of the world’s largest environmental cleanup projects.

The reactor, known as the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), was closed in 1992 after testing nuclear fuels and components since the 1970’s. Since then the DoE has reportedly spent $30 million annually on investigating the possible alternative uses for the reactor, but DoE officials finally concluded that there isn’t enough of a case for restarting it. The Department will now investigate plutonium production at sites in Idaho and Tennessee and generating medical isotopes for cancer treatment elsewhere too.

The decision will please local residents, thousands of whom attended public meetings about the facility and pressure groups such as Heart of America Northwest, an organisation of Hanford residents, which says that if the reactor were restarted it would further compound the site’s nuclear waste and problems with leaks and faulty tanks, and further delay cleanup efforts. “This issue has divided the region and prevented us from working together for cleanup,” said Gerald Pollet, Executive Director of the group. “We have had four years of being called names, being subjected to threats and even physical assaults as we tried to work for the cleanup of Hanford, instead of adding more wastes to our problems.”

The decision has also pleased those concerned about the nearby Columbia River, which provides irrigation and hydroelectricity for the region and hosts several species of endangered salmon. “Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson made a difficult and courageous decision,” said Greg deBruler from the Hanford branch of conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper. “There was massive pressure from nuclear special interests and the citizens of the TriCities (nearby towns) to restart this archaic machine. Richardson listened to the citizens of the Northwest and the factual reality that FFTF is no longer needed.”

“Now, the supposed justifications for restart have completely evaporated and the funds that are being wasted will go where they have long belonged: into cleaning up the environment that adjoins our lifeblood, the Columbia River,” said Democrat Senator Ron Wyden, a chief supporter of the shutdown. “After years of indecision, the people of the Pacific Northwest deserve to have the money used to clean up the contamination at Hanford rather than on some wild good chase.”

The costs of deactivating the reactor are estimated to be about $280 million

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