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MIT Alum Proposes Referendum Calling For Reactor's Removal from Cambridge

By Frank Dabek
News Editor

Tucked amid questions on lowering dividend tax rates and campaign finance reform, Cambridge residents will be asked their opinion on moving MIT's nuclear reactor out of Cambridge.

The question, which was proposed by an MIT alumnus, David A.Hoicka '77, and Ralph Lopez is non-binding and asks voters if they are in favor of instructing their state representative to vote in favor of legislation which would require the reactor to "be removed immediately out of Cambridge to a safer and less densely populated area."

Hoicka, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for state representative, said that his main concern is for the safety of Cambridge residents. We're "not trying to be Luddites we're not against nuclear power," Hoicka said.

However, "people in Cambridge are entitled to a fair and open debate over whether we want a nuclear reactor in a densely populated area." Hoicka estimates that half a million people live in close proximity to the reactor.

John A. Bernard, director of reactor operations at the nuclear reactor lab, acknowledged safety concerns but said that the reactor doesn't "really represent a hazard." Bernard explained that the reactor operates at "hot bathtub water" temperatures of about 110F(50C) and at nearly atmospheric pressures. The reactor also has only small amounts of radioactive substances on hand. "There is nothing to release," he said.

Hoicka said that he had a nuclear physicist not associated with the Institute evaluate the reactor's safety. Based on this analysis, he calls claims that the reactor is safe"baloney."

Sarah E. Gallop, co-director of the office of government and community relations, said that the reactor is "heavily regulated by the Nuclear Regulator Commission" and is in good standing.

Gallop added that MIT works with the Emergency Management Department in Cambridge and has developed a response system including an evacuation plan. Hoicka criticized the reactor for not having such a plan.

Reactor used for research

Bernard and Gallop both stressed the role of the reactor as a research site. "Most of the work [done at the reactor] is cancer therapy," Bernard said. Gallop pointed to the reactor's role in research into brain cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Hoicka counters these "emotional arguments" made by researchers who compare their research to "saving babies" by arguing that researchers could "just as appropriately do that research in a rural area." He further speculated that "the reactor looks to be fairly portable sectional" and might be "put on a series of trucks and moved" elsewhere.

Gallop said that the public at large was probably unaware of the research done at the reactor and said that tours of the reactor are offered. "We are trying to drum up interest," in the reactor. For that reason,Gallop said the question represented a positive for the Institute.

Hoicka, as Gallop and Bernard confirmed, took such a tour. He said that he found responses of the staff to his questions were "condescending and evasive." Hoicka claims to have been told by an official at the reactor that "we build bombs here, of course," though he hopes the remark was meant facetiously.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, Gallop and Bernard stressed that the state government has no control over the reactor which is regulated by a federal agency.

Hoicka has history withMIT

Hoicka is not only a graduate of MIT, he also sued the school in 1993 after the Institute sued him when he defaulted on his student loans. Hoicka's countersuit argued that MIT's collusion with other universities to set financial aid awards meant that students who received awards should be compensated.

Hoicka is also active in local area politics involving housing and health care. He has placed two other questions on the ballot. One urges the creation of legislation stimulating increased production and availability of affordable housing for middle class and low income citizens. The other calls for universal, affordable, comprehensive health insurance for all residents of Massachusetts and for a health care bill of rights.