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ABC Says MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Unsafe

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Oct. 14 version of this article incorrectly stated the reason MIT exceeded the amount of uranium it could store at the reactor. The infraction occurred because of an error in the program the reactor staff use to balance shipments and deliveries of fuel, not because MIT had difficulty shipping fuel to an outside storage site.

By Beckett W. Sterner

How vulnerable are nuclear research reactors to terrorist attacks? An ABC News investigative report that aired last night claimed that many university reactors, including MIT’s, need to take stronger security measures to protect their uranium stocks.

ABC’s report, which wades into the highly technical and classified topic of nuclear reactor security, has encountered controversy over some of its claims. The report often elides important differences between the reactors that would influence the risk levels of certain attacks.

There are three major ways in which the uranium used by a reactor could play a role in a terrorist attack: theft for use in a weapon, a bomb detonated outside the reactor, and a bomb exploded near the reactor core.

In ABC’s investigation they were able to park a large truck about 30 feet from MIT’s reactor. However, that distance is not significantly less than the distance to Albany Street, and is still larger than the reactor’s security perimeter, said Nuclear Reactor Laboratory Director David E. Moncton PhD ’75.

Considering the broader context of terrorist attacks, MIT’s reactor poses relatively little threat, said Police Chief John DiFava.

For example, he said, there is a 800–900 foot long liquid natural gas tanker that docks in Boston Harbor regularly. “I don’t think anybody really knows what would happen if that hull would breach,” he said, noting divergent studies that suggest the fuel may just burn or could result in a 3-mile radius explosion.

Regarding MIT’s reactor, he said, “is it a real risk — is it a perception issue, or is it just people who are hostile to nuclear power?”

The MIT reactor is used for medical and nuclear power research, said Vice President for Research Alice P. Gast. Nuclear power is likely to play an increasingly important role in America’s energy supply as gas reserves decline and fuel prices rise, as stated by a report on nuclear power released by MIT in 2003.

Down and dirty with uranium

MIT’s reactor runs on highly enriched uranium (HEU), a possible ingredient for nuclear weapons. The fuel can also be used in “dirty bombs” that disseminate vaporized harmful radioactive material over a large area.

Most research reactors have converted to low enriched uranium (LEU) in a slow process funded by the Department of Energy, and MIT will follow suit when the DOE provides funding, Gast said. LEU fuel must undergo a complex reaction to be turned into weapons-grade material, but can still be used in dirty bombs.

Attacking a nuclear reactor is not as simple as blowing it up or walking in with guns blazing, however. MIT’s reactor is shielded by many layers of metal and concrete, making it difficult for an external explosion to vaporize the radioactive material inside. ABC’s report raises questions over what security measures are needed to deter attacks and also over what scenarios pose a significant danger.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees security requirements at research reactors, is examining evidence provided by ABC to see whether further action needs to be taken at any facility, said Elliot Brenner, director of the NRC Office of Public Affairs.

“Nothing about the access or tour has been criticized by ABC,” Moncton said, referring to the undercover tour taken by two ABC journalist interns. MIT has more security measures in place than many reactors, and ABC found that MIT’s reactor was one of only two with armed guards.

ABC Media Relations spokesperson Adam Pockriss did not respond to questions submitted on the story yesterday.

ABC reports weak security

After a four-month investigation during which journalism interns traveled to the 25 reactors on college campuses across the country, ABC reported finding “unmanned guard booths, a guard who appeared to be asleep, unlocked building doors and, in a number of cases, guided tours that provided easy access to control rooms and reactor pools that hold radioactive fuel.”

The story also highlighted the issue that “many of the schools permit vehicles in close proximity to the reactor buildings without inspection for explosives.”

Whether or not an external explosion could release radioactive material into the atmosphere depends on the design of the reactor.

“A pretty big plane could fly into it and not damage it,” Moncton said, referring to MIT’s reactor core.

In the “worst case scenario, that building is going to implode, not explode,” DiFava said.

On the other hand, the televised investigation reported that the interns were able to walk up to another college’s open water reactor with large tote bags that were not searched by staff.

The two major concerns raised by the investigation regarding MIT’s reactor in particular did not involve direct access to the reactor, but rather access to online information and the ability to drive a truck to within 30 feet of the reactor building.

Given that the reactor is about 50 feet from Albany Street and about 300 from Massachusetts Avenue, regular traffic passes nearly as close as the ABC truck had reached. A large bomb would have to be closer to significantly damage the building, Moncton said.

He said a study on the effect of an explosion on the reactor was conducted by Lincoln Laboratory scientists with consultation of MIT faculty shortly after 9/11. The report showed that the reactor would not be significantly damaged by a large truck bomb at the distance of the security perimeter.

DiFava said that explosions from large bombs carry most of their force upwards, rather than outwards, lessening the impact on the reactor building.

“There wouldn’t be any dispersal of material,” Moncton said, and that to be a dirty bomb, the explosion must vaporize the uranium instead of just blowing apart chunks of it.

Another problem ABC investigators reported was that they were able to find floor plans for the reactor using computers in Barker Library.

Moncton said that these plans are out of date and do not list the location of guards or security cameras.

Director of Reactor Operations John A. Bernard Jr. said that many nuclear engineering dissertations have the same diagrams as those available at Barker. The floor plans had been publicly available before Sept. 11, 2001, but were taken offline afterwards by MIT.

The final criticism leveled at MIT by ABC was that the schedule for the reactor was available online.

Moncton said that the availability of the schedule had been under discussion with the NRC for several months before ABC’s investigation began. The schedule is used by off-campus researchers who use the reactor, he said.

Bernard said that about one month ago, after ABC’s visit, MIT decided to stop publicly listing times when the reactor was inactive for fuel delivery, thus making it impossible to tell when fuel deliveries were being received based on the activity of the reactor.

Some confusion seemed to prevail on NRC’s awareness of the schedule being online. “That’s something I’d want us to pursue, and we will,” said Roy Zimmerman, director of the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response for the NRC, after learning about the online schedule from ABC lead investigator Brian Ross.

Debate over fuel safety heats up

Perhaps the best recognized security threat posed by research reactors is the possibility that a terrorist could steal highly enriched uranium for use in a nuclear weapon.

Once HEU is placed in a reactor, however, it acquires a lethal level of radioactivity that would incapacitate a person in a few minutes. Accordingly, someone trying to steal active fuel would need extremely strong protective shielding.

Before being placed in the reactor, HEU is both safe enough to hold in your hands and immediately usable for a nuclear weapon. MIT’s reactor has at most two kilograms of fresh HEU on site at any time, Moncton said, a small fraction of what is needed for a bomb. He said the fuel is delivered on a just-in-time basis, so that the reactor does not need to stockpile fuel.

Transporting spent fuel is dependent on a political balancing act between the danger of storing fuel at the reactor and the danger of transporting it long-distance to another site.

“Being able to ship is a complicated alignment of a number of stars,” Moncton said. The MIT reactor has sometimes been unable to send away its fuel for multiple years at a time, he said, although the current amount being stored is at a historical low.

“We could probably smooth out the bureaucratic process,” Gast said. “I think nationally we need to deal with spent fuel as a national priority.”

The difficulty of a terrorist transporting spent fuel is under debate. Moncton said that spent fuel can still incapacitate someone trying to carry it without shielding.

The international definition for what level of radioactivity is incapacitating is too low for a suicidal terrorist, though, said Matthew G. Bunn G, a senior research associate at Harvard who studies nuclear non-proliferation measures. “One person can pick it up and carry it away,” Bunn said, referring to spent fuel from a reactor like MIT’s. Bunn is also finishing his thesis in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.

The effort needed to turn spent fuel into weapons material is not nearly as significant as that to produce enriched uranium from scratch, Bunn said.

The difficulty in shipping away spent fuel has been a problem for MIT in the past. Moncton said that reactor staff were unable to ship away fuel for long enough that last year they slightly exceeded the limit imposed by the NRC on how much total uranium could be stored on site, requiring MIT to notify the NRC of a regulations infraction.

One of the most significant security issues facing reactors, then, requires the coordination of state and federal regulators, as well as the vigilance of reactor staff.