APS News | Opinion

Canary in the Coal Mine: The 1997 Leak at Brookhaven National Laboratory

A harmless leak at a national lab on Long Island 26 years ago — and the resulting public backlash — holds important lessons for combating misinformation today.

Published Apr 13, 2023
The High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) containment vessel under construction at Brookhaven National Lab in June 1962. The HFBR operated for more than 30 years before being shut down in 1999.
Credit: Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Twenty-six years ago, scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) found that the 68,000-gallon spent fuel pool of its High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) was leaking. Over a dozen or so years, about eight gallons per day of tritium-containing water had seeped out, leaving about 30 curies of radioactive tritium in the ground, about the amount of tritium in many self-illuminating “EXIT” signs.

The leak was not dangerous. When tritium decays, it emits beta radiation — electrons that are stopped by as little as a sheet of paper — with a half-life of just 12.3 years. The tritium would never make it into the local drinking water because it would dilute and decay to almost background levels in the decades it would take to reach the lab’s border. No one on or off site would be exposed to it.

But the announcement of the leak’s discovery ignited a firestorm. Its significance was spun out of proportion by activists, politicians, and the media, and fueled anti-nuclear agendas, partisan ambitions, and lurid headlines. The disaster consumed the lab contractor, and the Department of Energy (DOE) terminated the HFBR, one of the world’s most important neutron-scattering facilities. The episode also sparked calls to close BNL itself, whose work had earned 4 (now 7) Nobel prizes.

BNL was not innocent. Despite having previously assured regulators and the public that the HFBR was carefully monitored, the lab had failed to detect the leak. Still, the reactions from many outside the organization were disproportionate. Alfonse D’Amato, a conservative New York senator with a poor environmentalist record, seized the opportunity to get credibility as a green by bashing the lab. Actor Alec Baldwin led a group of activists, some of whom called for the HFBR’s closure and others for closure of BNL itself. Baldwin insulted and threatened scientists and rejected scientific findings, behaving in real life like the bullying science-denying character he would famously impersonate on Saturday Night Live two decades later, from 2016-2020.

Most memorably, Dan Rattiner, a Long Island newspaper editor, wrote an article alerting readers that dinosaurs would soon be spotted at the lab — although not for long, because they would be eaten by a 40-foot spider and then beamed into the cargo hold of a UFO. Rattiner, naturally, was spoofing the media coverage of BNL, but when he found that not enough readers realized this, he quickly followed with another article, writing that closing the lab would be the “single biggest research disaster” in U.S. history. With that much publicity, novelist Dan Brown even considered the lab as the setting of his novel Angels and Demons.

How could something with no environmental or health impact possibly inspire such hysteria, as well as damage to extremely valuable and safely operating scientific institutions?

Staff at the High Flux Beam Reactor in 1966.
Credit: Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

At the time, I was finishing a book about the early history of BNL. As the firestorm broke, I briefly considered the episode as the topic of my next book. But I rejected the idea. It was idiotic, I felt sure, and would soon fade away without much consequence.

By a quarter-century later, 2022, I changed my mind. In collaboration with BNL’s former interim director Peter Bond, we wrote The Leak: Politics, Activists, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory (MIT Press). We did so because we felt that what happened at BNL in 1997 was a canary in the coal mine — an early warning signal — for today’s conspiracy stories and fake facts about elections, vaccines, global warming, and other current events.

John Marburger, the physicist who ascended to BNL’s directorship in 1998 (and then became U.S. Science Advisor to President George W. Bush in 2001), called what happened to the lab a catastrophe in the engineering sense, in which a machine or system grows out of touch with its surroundings, becomes unstable, and all it takes is a simple tweak for the entire system to come crashing down. “The laboratory was operating unwittingly in a region of imbalance with its society,” Marburger wrote. “It was only a matter of time before a fluctuation would cause a catastrophic readjustment.” At BNL in 1997, the tritium leak was that tweak.

How does one of the Department of Energy laboratories — large and expensive facilities essential to implementing national scientific, technological, medical, and educational ambitions — get that out of touch? The dynamics appear in the BNL story.

One factor is the difference between national and regional media such as Science, the New York Times, and Newsday on the one hand, and the tabloids distributed free at supermarkets and gas stations on the other. Administrators tend to devote attention to the educated journalists of the former, but the latter can wield greater local influence.

Political relations are another factor. Then-DOE Under Secretary Ernie Moniz told us, “When it comes to being able to start a major facility, and your own Congressman is arguing against it, you haven’t done your job.” But politicians must also be cultivated differently. Are they local or national? What are their agendas? To whom do they listen?

Local culture and history also have an impact on how the public reacts. Is there a history of toxic spills from industries? What are the perceived health issues? What action groups are influential?

The year after the leak was discovered, DOE officials convened a group of scientists, administrators, and experts from various national laboratories to see if anything could be learned from the episode. No consensus emerged — no easy fixes were in sight. Fermilab’s representative began her Powerpoint presentation with the following words: “There but for the grace of God…” What had happened to BNL, she said, could happen to any facility — even to Fermilab, which doesn’t have a reactor.

But national laboratories and their instruments shouldn’t have to depend on supernatural assistance. Some lessons are obvious: Appeal to tabloids and regional outlets as much as mainstream media. Cultivate relationships with local as well as national politicians. Be transparent about risks and benefits. Expand user bases.

The 2021 rupture of a fuel element at the NIST facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland shows that firestorms do not have to happen. Their reactor mishap resulted in its delayed restart but not its termination, either out of a combination of heeding such lessons, planning, or luck.

In the end, the most important lesson of the BNL tale is the importance of intentional and ongoing engagement with surrounding communities — the absence of which creates potential triggers. Such connections require continually studying and interpreting the complex and evolving character of the mythologies, fears, myths, lore, concerns, and trust in the surrounding communities.

But these are not STEM topics. Stable scientific facilities require good science, but robust humanities and social science research as well.

Robert P. Crease

Robert P. Crease is a philosopher and historian of science at Stony Brook University. His most recent book, The Leak, was published in 2022.

Join your Society

If you embrace scientific discovery, truth and integrity, partnership, inclusion, and lifelong curiosity, this is your professional home.