Experiments and isotope production have been affected, but employees are still able to carry out their normal duties at the High Flux Isotope Reactor as the U.S. Department of Energy investigates a slightly elevated radiation level in HFIR’s primary cooling system.
The High Flux Isotope Reactor, which is used for research and isotope production, is at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
In a response to questions on Wednesday, ORNL Communications Director David Keim said the slightly elevated reading in the primary cooling system was well below alarm levels.
“The HFIR operators promptly responded to the reading and placed the reactor in a safe condition,” Keim said.
The reactor shutdown has affected research and isotope production at HFIR. While the facility is not operating, it does not produce isotopes, Keim said. Also, 92 neutron scattering users and their 44 experiments have been affected, he said.
Keim said DOE has started an in-depth investigation into the incident, engaging experts in reactor operations and fuel fabrication from across the nuclear industry to determine the cause and also to evaluate ORNL and DOE’s response. An interim report is expected by mid-January 2019, Keim said.
The elevated radiation level did not make any equipment inoperable, and no equipment will need to be replaced, Keim said. But a new fuel element will be used when HFIR resumes operation, he said.
Workers were bringing HFIR back online on Tuesday, November 13, after a planned outage when the elevated radiation level was detected in the cooling system, Keim said last week.
“HFIR operators decided to shut down the reactor in order to investigate and determine what happened,” Keim said then. “The plant is in a safe condition.”
Operators shut down HFIR well before the plant advanced to a condition prompting automatic shutdown, Keim said.
He said no workers received any exposure, and there was no residual contamination outside the primary system. Radiation detection equipment around the building and throughout the ORNL campus showed normal background levels, he said.
HFIR was built in the mid-1960s to produce transuranic isotopes—“heavy” elements such as plutonium and curium. Since then, its mission has grown to include materials irradiation, neutron activation, and, most recently, neutron scattering. (Learn more about HFIR’s history here.)
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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