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Cambridge evaluates MIT's nuclear reactor

An ad hoc committee appointed by the Cambridge City Council has begun a safety investigation of MIT's nuclear reactor, according to David B. O'Connor, director of the city's Department of Emergency Management and member of the committee.

"There's been an increase in international terrorism, and in light of world events, the study is an excellent idea at this time," O'Connor said.

Located at 138 Albany Street, MIT's five-megawatt research facility uses weapon-grade, highly-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. It i the second largest university research reactor in the United States. The largest one is at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

City councillor David E. Sullivan '74, who requested the investigation at the Nov. 18 meeting of the City Council, was concerned that the reactor might be vulnerable to an accident or a terrorist attack.

"You've got a nuclear reactor with bomb-grade fuel sitting in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States," Sullivan explained in an interview with The Tech. "Naturally, you want to know what the safeguards are. The reactor could be a significant public health and safety hazard. The city has the authority and responsibility to address these issues."

Lincoln Clark, Jr., associate director of the 28-year-old reactor, said MIT will cooperate with the city's investigation. The reactor presently follows the security arrangements required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), he added. The Council has the right to ensure that MIT takes sufficient safety precautions, he said.

"Cambridge has always been interested in the safety of the reactor," Clark explained. "People have been brought up to be concerned about nuclear reactors, but we are convinced that the reactor will not cause a safety problem to the general public."

An accident-caused leak of radioactive material would be extremely unlikely to spread beyond the reactor building, he indicated.

O'Connor explained, however, that the committee is more concerned with the possibility of theft or sabotage to the reactor rather than the safe operation of the reactor. "The real issue is the physical security [of the reactor]," he said.

Sullivan questioned whether the reactor has adequate security to stop a determined terrorist. "If a terroris wanted to strike somewhere in this area, the nuclear reactor at MIT would be a good place to start," Sullivan proposed in the November 1985 Boston Magazine. "Right now, if somebody wanted to drive a truck loaded with a bomb up to the reactor, what's to stop them?"

The building containing the reactor is protected by a two-foot wall of steel-reinforced concrete, according to Clark. In addition, the core of the reactor, the unit in which nuclear reactions take place, is further surrounded by a five-foot concrete enclosure, Clark said.

"If someone ran into the building with a bomb, that would damage the wall, but that's about it," Clark said. "Radioactive material wouldn't escape."

Critics concerned with HEU theft

Daniel Hirsch, director of the Adlai Stevenson Program on Nuclear Policy at the University of California, claimed that HEU stored at university research reactors is particularly vulnerable to theft. Campus police are trained for routine patrol situations, not for "preventing theft of material that can be used to make nuclear weapons," he told Boston Magazine.

The MIT Campus Police maintains 24-hour surveillance of the facility with armed patrols conducting periodic checks on the reactor, Clark said. Access to the facility is limited to people participating in an experiment and those involved with the reactor's maintenance and operation, he added. All other visitors must be escorted, he continued.

MIT police officers responsible for patrolling the reactor receive additional training, according to MIT police officer Ted Lewis. The special training, which is jointly designed by reactor officials and the MIT police chief, mainly focuses on the safe handling of radioactive material, he added.

Could terrorists build bomb?

Building a nuclear weapon requires somewhere between 10-20 kilograms of HEU, depending on the level of uranium enrichment, according to Bernard T. Feld, professor of physics.

The MIT reactor is permitted to store up to 29 kilograms of HEU, according to Clark. But most of the HEU fuel is radioactive and therefore difficult to steal.

"All but 1.5 kilos [of uranium] are radioactive," Clark explained. "So the fuel's mostly self-protecting."

Feld agreed that handling radioactive fuel directly out of the reactor would most likely be fatal. Terrorists could steal radioactive fuel only if they have a "relatively sophisticated remote control system" or if they are willing to commit suicide, he explained.

But Hirsch contends that even small amounts of bomb-grade material are dangerous in the wrong hands. "The easiest precaution is to replace the fuel with lower grade uranium that can't be used for a weapon," Hirsch said.

Clark: HEU needed for research

The MIT reactor is used for a wide range of research experiments in fields such as medicine, geology, nuclear physics, and radiochemistry, Clark described.

The facility also produces large quantities of isotopes, mainly for medical applications. For example, the Harvard Medical School is using an MIT-produced radioactive isotope to developing an arthritis treatment, he said. The reactor also puts radiation in gold seeds which are used for treating brain cancer patients in Boston-area hospitals, he added.

The reactor would be shut down if it were restricted to using low or mdium-enriched uranium, Clark said. The lower the enrichment f the uranium, the bigger the reactor must be in order to accomodate a nuclear reaction.

"MIT's [reactor] was built for high-enriched uranium," Clark indicated. "If we had to go to low-enriched uranium, it would mean that we have to rebuild the reactor."

Physics laboratories in the United States are currently exploring the possibility of using low-enriched uranium for producing a fission reactions for use in research reactors similar to MIT's, Clark explained.

"When such a fuel is available, we would be glad to use it," Clark said. "It would be an expensive proposition, but we would do it if required."

NRC security slows investigation

The ad hoc committee is presently studying NRC regulations governing the storage of HEU for university research reactors, O'Connor said. The committee only recently received permission from the NRC to examine these regulations, O'Connor said.

The committee plans to inspect the reactor upon completion of its study of the regulations, he added. An NRC representative will be required to accompany the committee when it visits the reactor, he remarked.

"The federal regulations, quite wisely, restrict the dissemination of NRC information," O'Connor explained. "I think that that [the security] is quite appropriate."

The fact that the city is studying the reactor does not necessarily mean that MIT has been negligent in its reactor protection. "It's an opportunity for MIT to ensure better communication and cooperation with the city. We're here to help. We're here to work with them," he said.

O'Connor estimated that the study will take two or three months. "We want to look at things carefully and come back with a complete report," he said. "We don't want to include self-defeating information that would publicize MIT's security precautions," he added.

The other members of the committee are: Thomas Scott, Cambridge Fire Chief; Henry Gallagher, Cambridge Acting Police Chief; Melvin H. Chalfen, Cambridge Health Commissioner and MIT physician.