Reactor’s shutdown won’t halt research

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After an embarrassing release of the news before an official decision was in place, the board of Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) has confirmed that it would permanently close the Halden Reactor. As environmental organizations cheered the decision, the board stressed that IFE will continue its nuclear research activities, concentrating on those that do not depend on the reactor being operational.

The Halden Reactor in Halden, south of Oslo near the border to Sweden, has been used for research purposes since it opened in 1959. It’s located 100 meters inside a rocky hillside. PHOTO: IFE

It’s been the world’s oldest heavy water reactor in operation. After opening in the border town of Halden nearly 60 years ago, it’s been billed as a “strategic asset” for testing fuel and reactor components, said to be vital aspects of nuclear safety. Research has been conducted around the reactor since 1958 under the framework of the Halden Project and under the auspices of the OECD/NEA.

The board decided, however, that IFE can no longer rely on governmental funding. As a self-owned foundation, IFE “is not able to handle the financial risk of operating the reactor,” said Olav Fjell, a former CEO of Statoil (now Equinor) and chairman of IFE.

‘Challenging’
Operation of the Halden Reactor became “increasingly challenging” for IFE, states the board in a press release that was inadvertently issued on the morning of the board meeting last week that sealed its fate. That set off confusion, not least in the media, when the release was retracted, only to be released after the meeting concluded.

The reactor has already been shut down, because of a safety valve failure, while the board evaluated whether to reapply for a license to run it. The board studied both financial and operational risk assessment. Now it’s clear the reactor won’t be restarted.

Research will continue, however, and IFE’s board announced there would be no cuts in staffing. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that decommissioning the reactor will take several years.

IFE also claimed that the Halden Project itself “has been the backbone of IFE’s operations in Halden since 1958, and has established itself as an international benchmark in nuclear safety research.” CEO Nils Morten Huseby stated that “we are determined to continue our nuclear research activities to the best for our customers and employees.” The latter will move into new roles related to decommissioning of the reactor and nuclear waste management.

‘Disappointed’ workers
Employees were nonetheless unhappy. “We are very disappointed,” Monica Guldhaugen, who represents the employees in Halden, told NRK. “We had hoped that IFE’s board would decide in favour of ongoing operation, or that they at least would postpone a decision on shutdown.”

Fjell, however, told NRK that IFE has lost “a lot of money on the Halden Reactor for several years. When we look ahead, we see that the framework for operating will be more demanding and more expensive. It’s not realistic that income will much higher, so it will be difficult to come in balance.” There also are many challenges in handling its nuclear waste, he noted.

Environmental organizations were jubilant. “Fantastic, good news,” Kurt Oddekalv of Norges Miljøvernforbund told NRK. “We have fought for this for many years.” He said the reactor “has been a risk factor for 20 years, so this is a great victory.” Organizations Greenpeace and Bellona also celebrated the shutdown.

“This is a great victory for the entire Norwegian environmental movement,” wrote Truls Gulowsen, leader of Greenpeace Norway, in an email to NRK. “We have worked together for many years to get the reactor closed.”

(For more on the reactor in English click here – external link to IFE’s website.)

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund