Building a New Reactor: Part II—More on Cintichem

To build a reactor facility of nearly any size, you'll need to move some dirt. Drawing of a digger-crawler by the author; pen-and-ink and marker.

First off, I apologize that it has taken me so very long to get back to this blog. It's been a very busy time for me as a journalist the past few months, to say nothing of the holidays, as well. This multi-part series of entries on building new reactors, new nuclear power plants and associated facilities is going to be long. Anyone expecting a step-by-step of how a plant is built will, at least for now, need to look elsewhere (Nuclear Street's own coverage of the new reactors at Vogtle is a great place to begin on this) while my own blog is going to go very deep on not only the technological and economic issues germane to building new reactors but moreover, the socio-political issues revolving around this topic. My query is this: not only how do we build a new reactor, but why? And why not? How do we arrive at the decisions necessary to get this done and why, given the robust push to build more and more reactors in the 1950s and 1960s, have we fallen so far away from the mark, especially with non-power and non-academic utilization of reactors? Where is, in actual investment and construction of reactors today, the Atoms for Peace dream of yesteryear? All of this is integral to considering reactor design, planning, and overall preparation for any expansion. 

For those who read Part I on this series, you'll recall the Cintichem facility in upstate New York. I find this facility fascinating for several reasons, for one, it was exactly the type of research/production reactor in an industrial setting that Atoms for Peace envisioned beyond strictly academic or National Labs reactor facilities. Radio-isotopes for medical applications was one of the greatest non-power applications the nuclear revolution promised, and in the free-market approach trumpeted by the post-war American spirit the concept of corporate providers engaged in this very necessary work seemed ideal. Cintichem (or, as we shall see, their predecessors) of course built their own reactor for their research and production needs. In the 1970s, this was not an outrageous idea, but only an ambitious one. 

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Cintichem set a little-known legal precedent. NRC regulations dating back to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 mandate that all research reactors on US soil under the jurisdiction of the NRC are fully owned by American interests, as to say, a foreign corporation cannot own in full or part the reactor, nor the immediate corporate owner of that reactor, nor the parent company of that corporate owner. The NRC has been very steadfast in enforcing this regulation and challenges to it have come up surprisingly often as parent companies of corporations desiring an interest in US reactors have been found to be located in Europe or elsewhere. While the intent of this law was to safeguard national security—an issue just as crucial now in 2015 as it was in 1954—the foreign interests involved in all actual cases appear to be fully friendly ones, based in nations such as France, Sweden, or Switzerland. No one has questioned the real security aspects of what are actually almost fully financial transfers of ownership, however the NRC has stuck to the letter of the law. Except with Cintichem, that is, and they did try their dogged best to enforce the law with it, as well. Here's what happened in a nutshell:

Union Carbide owned the reactor facility in upstate New York that Cintichem wished to become the owner and operator of, but Cintichem's parent company when you went far enough down a very dizzying maze of ownership was Swiss. Therefore, Cintichem could not own the research reactor, unless Cintichem was sold to a US-owned corporation with no foreign majority ownership whatsoever. The problem was, Cintichem was in no position to take that route. They desired the R-81 license to be approved without divesting Cintichem from its eventual European parent corporate owner. And they didn't take no for an answer, either. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyoming) pressed the NRC to somehow make an exception for Cintichem and when the NRC would not (and to be fair, could not), Simpson saw to it that written into the Congressional NRC funding appropriation for Fiscal Year 1985 was a stipulation for Cintichem's transfer order, the ill-fated R-81, to be exempted from the 1954 law and allowed. Thus, Public Law No. 98-553, § 109, 98 Stat. 2825 (1984) made, by act of Congress, Cintichem's R-81 possible despite the Swiss interest in the company. 

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What is astounding then is the fate that befell Cintichem and its New York reactor a mere decade later. The reactor, secluded away in the far reaches of a large tract of forest near Tuxedo, NY, developed cracks in the foundation of its outer containment building. As is oft the case with such a problem, the estimated cost of repairing the faulty foundation would have been astronomical—though possibly not out of line considering that Cintichem's reactor was, up to its closing in 1990, the only US reactor to routinely produce molybdenum-99, the uranium-processing byproduct necessary to make medical isotope technetium-99. In turn, technetium-99 is the most-used radio-isotope sought after for nuclear medicine studies and interventions currently. And with the loss of Cintichem's reactor, the US was fully at the mercy of other nations—mainly Canada's Chalk River facilities—to produce molybdenum-99. So, in 1990, the Cinitichem reactor was closed down and by now, in 2015, the entire vast facility has been removed and the land is slowly returning to forest. The US Department of Energy purchased Cintichem's patented trade process for producing technetium-99, a revolutionary improvement in molybdenum-99 to technetium-99 production and it was expected that a National Labs reactor somewhere might be enlisted in the technetium-99 supply chain but this doesn't seem to have happened. Having a huge repair problem on its hands, Union Carbide which again owned a majority interest in Cintichem prior to selling that to Dow Chemical, opted for closing the reactor facility lock, stock, and barrel over trying to salvage it and the sale of the "Cintichem Process" to the DOE helped ease the guilt in losing the cash cow, apparently. (I have tried to contact Union Carbide for their version of the story and they have not written back; a friend who doesn't want to go on the record but has knowledge of Dow's role in the Cintichem legacy claims that a wealth of unfinished projects wound up in both Union Carbide's and Dow's archives—mostly in the form of late 1980s computer disks on software like dBase III and even Hypercard files*. If these projects live up to half their hype, there could still be some very interesting things both on the molybdenum-99 supply chain side and on the software and control design side if anyone who has access to them wishes to try to revive them at some point.)

Given my background in architecture and software, as well as journalism, I hope some day to try to build a software simulation of Cintichem's reactor operations. I doubt this will provide anything ground-breaking at all, but should be interesting. Beyond personal interest though, Cintichem is a story writ small that deserves to be writ large, a cautionary tale if ever there was one. But not cautionary in the sense of any danger from the cracks in its concrete, no, but cautionary due to the way a company and project which was fought for so powerfully in Congress was abandoned less than a decade later due to a techno-structural issue. And with it, more importantly, was abandoned America's hope for native medical isotopes without relying on other nations to produce life-saving nuclear medical products for our health care. 

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So, back to the issue of building reactors. What happens when you have an idea that clearly has its place and serves a valid need, such as a reactor to produce medical isotopes and conduct research on the same? Can you get such a reactor built? Could you now? If you could, would it make enough money to pay for itself? If it suffered an unforeseen mishap, such as a cracking foundation, would it have the fiscal resources to ensure it could be repaired and returned to service? Cintichem showed what happened even with a reactor that 1) had a very clear and vital purpose, 2) was small enough it posed little environmental concern (and was located away from any large population center), 3) had what should have been sound financial backing. As I have not heard every view on the Cintichem story from everyone involved and as neither Union Carbide nor Dow have shared their official views, I encourage anyone in the position to do so, please chime in via comments here or a personal message to me. If I am missing something, let me know, but it appears the costs/benefits equation did not, as processed, rule at all in the reactor's favor. However, with the loss of that reactor, America lost a core national resource which by all accounts I've read has still not been really replaced—even now, even in 2015. And if Chalk River should shutdown again as it has before, well, hospitals may have a heck of a time sourcing enough medical isotopes for medical procedures. That isn't just my conjecture—a leading expert in nuclear medicine said as much in this article from a medical trade journal in 2010:

http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20101129/MAGAZINE/101129989

Dr. Manuel Brown notes that: “There were some nights when we only had enough isotopes for one study, or weekends when we couldn't do any. It was very difficult, and it became a real problem in terms of providing good care to patients.”

To me, that's pretty solid. That's pretty clear support for the need for another Cintichem-type reactor dedicated to the medical good. And issues with building exactly such a beast will be the focus of my next installment of this blog. 

*One of the most intriguing, if not perhaps most-important, aspects of the supposed legacy files from Cintichem was a Hypercard simulation of various reactor processes for producing medical isotopes. Again, I don't know the verifiable facts on any of this, but supposedly there are stacks of disks from 1987-1990 out there somewhere—probably in Midland with Dow I'd guess—with many unfinished Cinitichem side projects on them.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    The Imperial, monetary financial system's  'dark force' against nuclear power exists, this must be obvious since this nation should be in the Isotope Economy today, and into the Fusion powered economy. All throughout Academia, in our young people, through out elitist government policy, there is the hatred and fear of all things nuclear. What's happened is the secret, covert suppression of these nuclear fueled technologies, that could easily benefit the population's standard of living. Instead we're in the insane unlimited bailout, derivative casino economy.

    The United States has a treasure trove of nuclear fuel we call waste; what could we do and how would the national economy gain, if we suddenly built 200 to 400 modular Fast Neutron Reactors and expanded on the manufacture of Isotopes, created desalination projects to relieve the drought stricken farm and food production sector?  

  • In response to Anonymous' comment on the economic forces conspiring against nuclear, I agree to an extent. Many people—including many academics who are not physical scientists—are poised against nuclear due to misinformation and Hollywood portrayals of nuclear as something sinister. Certainly, Big Oil and Big Coal plus those industries that revolve around these fields is plenty happy to roll right along with people in fear of nuclear, too. More money for them that way. And that's why I write blog entries like this one: to show, on the micro level what happens on the macro level and to furnish real-world examples of the battles nuclear has to fight.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Regarding the medical radio-isotope production reactor, Coqui Pharma is currently attempting to build a such a reactor near Gainesville, FL ( www.coquipharma.com/wordpress1).  According to their public statements, they are planning on submitting their license application to the NRC this year.  Several other companies are also pursuing medical radio-isotope production using other processes or existing reactors (such as the Missouri University Research Reactor).  These companies include Northstar Medical, Northwest Medical, and Shine Medical.  I believe that all of these companies are planning on producing the isotopes by 2020 (at the latest).  

  • Thanks for the info on Coqui: I've been following their progress too and plan to write about their efforts soon. Moreover, while I have no formal connection to them at all, I live near where they plan to put their facility in NW Alachua County, Florida, and I welcome them doing such. There is a lot of advanced medical research here and the University of Florida has a great  nuclear engineering program and a research/teaching reactor already.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Get busy and educate the public abut safe storage of used fuel. See the latest scientific American, a short article about the demise of the nuclear industry.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    I worked there and could give insight into the operations and maintenance of a facility of such

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Additional comments. The facility would still be running if they wanted to fix it . In 1990 it was 5 million to fix or 25 million to decommission. It wound up being just shy of 160 million. Union Carbide sold it to Hoffman - La Roche. The people they sent in had no idea how to run this facility. Most of them were just passing through onto bigger and greater corporate thing. In 1980 we were making radioisotopes. After they took over we were irradiating things such as silicon and topaz jewels. More went into the silicon irradiation( The Carousel) than into the repair budget.   Signing off.  Doctor Duke.

  • Doctor Duke, thanks for your comments. Please feel free to msg me on here via the Nuclear Street msg service and tell me more about Cintichem and its legacy. I would be fascinated to know more from someone who actually worked there!