In the aftermath of 9/11, UW-Madison officials hastened to assert that a campus-based nuclear reactor used for research and teaching posed little danger to the public or national security (see a 2002 Isthmus report).
Last month The New York Times reported that civilian research reactors, including those at universities, "are seen by Mr. Obama and his aides as particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack."
It took awhile to find a UW official willing to talk, but the message is the same: Don't worry.
"Since 9/11, the security of all civilian reactors has been upgraded significantly," says Michael Corradini, a UW professor of engineering physics. While he "really can't tell you" what all's been done, he says it involves "more people and more security."
The UW's reactor, one of 28 campus reactors in the U.S., is housed in the Mechanical Engineering Building, 1513 University Ave. Corradini says safeguards were added when the building was renovated in 2005.
Moreover, the reactor last year converted to using a lower grade of uranium, enriched to a level of 18%, down from 70%. The reactor at M.I.T, cited in the Times' story, still uses 93% enriched uranium.
According to Corradini, the lower enrichment level does not affect the uranium's radioactivity or the reactor's performance. But it does make it even harder to use pilfered material to blow parts of the planet to kingdom come.
"You cannot from this type of material make a bomb," he says. "There's not enough material. You'd have to steal it from multiple facilities."