Sunday, August 15, 2004

Research Reactors at Universities: Safety Questions

Today's New York Times has an article, in which criticisms are levels against the government of the United States of America.  The problem, they report, is that six universities in the country have nuclear research reactors that use highly enriched uranium.  There used to be more, but the Department of Energy began a process about twenty years ago to convert them all to low enriched (<20%) uranium.  The article states that the remaining reactors could be converted at a cost of five to ten million dollars each. 

Uranium Reactors on Campus Raise Security Concerns
August 15, 2004

[...] But since 1978, out of concern that the uranium might be turned into bomb fuel, the Department of Energy has spent millions of dollars to develop lower-grade fuel and convert scores of reactors to run on it. As of July 30, according to the Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office), 39 of 105 research reactors worldwide had converted or were in the process. But the six campus reactors in this country are not among them.

 "It's outrageous that they're still doing this," said Victor Gilinsky, who was an early advocate for switching to low-enriched fuel as a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1975 to 1984. There may not be quite enough on hand at Wisconsin to make a bomb, he said in a telephone interview, but "who says that somebody has to get enough in one shot?"

 Campus reactors have far less security than places where the government keeps bomb-grade uranium, and they may have foreign students of unknown political sympathies, Mr. Gilinsky said. And he pointed out that the United States is seeking to persuade countries all over the world to stop civilian use of bomb-grade uranium.

 "It's a bad example," he said. "How can we go around the world asking people to shift over if we're not shifting over ourselves?"

Asked why the research reactors had not been converted, Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which is in charge of nonproliferation, was blunt. "There hasn't been enough funding," he said. He noted that in May, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham promised to seek conversion of all the reactors by 2014. But he said he could not give a schedule for the campus reactors.

Mr. Franklin also acknowledged that his department does not know just what the cost would be. The Energy Department told the accountability office that it had converted 11 research reactors at universities for a total of $10 million, but that the remaining ones would cost $5 million to $10 million each. That drew a sharp rejoinder from the State Department, which wants the reactors converted. [...]

The concern is that the highly-enriched uranium might be stolen.  Although the amount of uranium at any one reactor would not be enough to make a fission bomb, it would be a good start.  Stealing the uranium would be difficult.  The article points out some of the difficulties, although the author did not detail the most feasible theft scenarios.  The Corpus Callosum will not comment further.  Unlike the NYT, I do not like to publish information that could serve as a roadmap for terrorists. 

The point here is this: it would cost $30 to $60 million to eliminate this potential threat.  The State Department wants it to happen.  The Department of energy wants it to happen.  But is has not happened.   Why not?

What about the situation here in Ann Arbor, Michigan?  The research reactor on campus was converted  to low enriched uranium in 1984, then shut down in 2003.  This closing resulted from a decision made by the Regents in 2000, shortly after the accomplishments made possible by the reactor were lauded in their 50th anniversary celebration.  The shutdown was controversial, as mentioned in this article  for the Michigan Daily.  Apparently, budget problems played a role:

[...] Because the reactor was principally used by parties outside the University, its $1.2 million annual expenditure made it difficult for the University to justify keeping it running, Francis said.

At the time of the decision, the reactor was in need of substantial repair — such as the replacement of building and electrical systems — a third of which was urgent or high priority. Similarly, increased security since the Sept. 11 attacks has raised the costs of operating the reactor, Francis said. [...]

"The reactor was in need of substantial repair ... a third of which was urgent or high priority"?  How in the world did it get to that point?  The NYT article does not mention any of this.  It does make me curious to know what kind of repairs the remaining research reactors need, and how much of that is urgent.