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Nuclear Reactor Operator Asleep on Job

By Gareth Cook


JULY 29, 2003

There are many things to remember when operating a nuclear reactor, but one rule is paramount: Stay awake.

Between 6:09 and 6:15 on the morning of June 29, however, the only operator in the control room of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, in the heart of Cambridge, was snoozing. There was never any threat to the public, scientists say, but the incident could bring a fine from the U.S. government and is an embarrassment for a university proud of its technical prowess.

MIT’s 4.9-megawatt reactor, used for research and housed in two-foot thick concrete walls on Albany Street, is usually run around the clock by two-person teams. But while the operator slept that morning, his partner was locked out -- and tried to reach him by radio, by phone, by pager for 25 minutes, according to a letter filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. With the MIT Police on the way, and the partner close to flipping a remote emergency shutoff switch, the operator finally woke up.

University officials, who declined to name the napper, expect a report from the NRC in the next few weeks. In the meantime, said Alice Gast, MIT vice president for research, the facility is considering a number of measures for operators on the overnight shift -- including a buzzer in the control room.