An item in the May 7, 2010 issue of Isthmus examines new concerns about campus nuclear reactors. This story on the UW-Madison's nuclear reactor was originally published in the July 12, 2002 issue of Isthmus.
Joan Knoebel calls it "the kind of thing you'd think was speculative -- before Sept. 11." Now she worries that her fears could become reality: "I wouldn't forgive myself if I didn't say anything and something happened."
Knoebel lives with her family in University Heights, a few blocks from the UW-Madison's Mechanical Engineering Building, which, she's long known, houses a nuclear reactor: What if someone bent on destruction crashed a plane into the building, striking the reactor's core? What if it happened on a football Saturday, when 70,000 people are packed into Camp Randall next door? What about the possible theft and misuse of nuclear materials?
"If you wanted to contaminate a large area of the city, this would be a real easy place," speculates Knoebel, an attorney and stay-at-home mom. "It would be a horribly effective way to cause a lot of damage."
Such possibilities are worth discussing, since they have likely not eluded the consciousness of people who are actually pondering ways to cause terror. The UW insists there's no cause for alarm, but agrees there is a need for information.
The UW's reactor, built in 1960, is one of about two dozen small reactors used for education and research at universities across the country. It contains 91 uranium fuel rods in active use and another 126 not-quite-spent rods in storage, all submerged in a deep pool of water. Because the reactor is less efficient than larger models, it has a much higher concentration -- 70%, compared to the usual 5% -- of U-235, the isotope used in nuclear weapons. The active rods alone contain 25.5 pounds of U-235, more than twice the amount needed for a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb.
UW officials say their reactor is inherently safe, which is why they were able to build it in the center of a major urban area. For one thing, it's only a one-megawatt reactor -- compared, say, to the two reactors at Point Beach, each of which has a capacity of just over 500 megawatts. The UW's reactor does split atoms, but it does not produce enough fission fragments to pose a radioactive hazard. Even if the building were leveled and nuclear material scattered, says Ron Bresell, the UW's associate director of safety, "You cold go out and extract the same amount of radiation in ordinary dirt."
Still, if the goal of terrorists is to create terror; the UW's reactor could be a target. The theft of nuclear materials would feed into all sorts of disconcerting scenarios, whether or not they are viable.
According to professor Michael Corradini of the UW department of engineering physics, security was reviewed and tightened during the Vietnam War due to concerns about "protestors doing something, or, what's the word I'm looking for?, stupid." Since Sept. 11, he says, "we've been upgraded in safety, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission directives." But Corradini, who was last week named by President Bush to chair a national nuclear-waste safety board, can't discuss details, in part because "I myself don't know."
Associate reactor director Bob Agasie, when initially contacted by Isthmus, likewise refused to discuss safety specifics, saying "I have a mandate from the federal government to prevent that information from getting out."
Agasie eventually did provide general information, and led an Isthmus reporter on a tour of the facility, as he often does for individuals and groups. Visitors must fill out a form and ware dosemeters in case of accidental exposure, but are allowed right up to the uncovered edge of the reactor pool, at the bottom of which lies the fuel-rod assembly.
No one was present in the huge reactor chamber when Agasie entered with a key. There were no visible cameras, although Bresell says motion sensors are "always in place," and, in recent months, "police have inspected the whole facility looking for weak points, to improve security."
The reactor pool is 27 feet deep and contains 18,500 gallons of distilled water. While the water at the surface is essentially radiation-free, a person who dove down to the reactor core would receive a potentially fatal dose. (Indeed, that's how the facility conducts some experiments, by lowering containers near the core to irradiate the material inside.)
Even if the rods could be retrieved, UW officials say they could not be used to make a nuclear bomb. Weapons-grade uranium is 99.995% U-235, and Agasie says the uranium used in a reactor cannot be further "enriched." Bresell adds that the materials needed for such an attempt are strictly controlled. As he puts it, "If it was easy to make atomic bombs, everybody would have one."
What about a so-called dirty bomb? Could the fuel rods be used to disperse radiation and cause panic? Again, UW officials say, the material is not radioactive enough to present an actual threat. In fact, Bresell says a more efficient dirty bomb could be made "out of stuff you can buy freely," like uranyl acetate.
"What is the purpose of terrorism?" asks Bresell. "The main goal is to make people think the government does not have the ability to protect them." In this respect, the theft of nuclear material or a bomb that scattered even low levels of radiation could have the desired effect. "That's what terrorists aim at," the ignorant populace."
And that's why UW officials want people like Knoebel to know as much as possible about their local neighborhood nuclear reactor. "Does it have the potential to created widespread panic?" asks Agasie. "I'm sure it does because people haven't taken the time to educate themselves. They don't understand."