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Reacting to danger

A&M's nuclear reactor safety scrutinized

Published: Friday, October 14, 2005

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07


Wade Barker - The Battalion
Two A&M students are shown giving a tour of A&M´s nuclear reactor to undercover ABC News interns, which aired on Primetime on Thursday.


Michael Corradini, center, University of Wisconsin´s director of nuclear engineering, answers questions about nuclear reactor safety in front of a small nuclear research reactor in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin was one of the colleges featured Thursday on ABC´s Primetime investigation of nuclear reactors on college campuses.

Texas A&M was one of 25 colleges included in a four-month investigation conducted by ABC News, which questioned security measures for nuclear reactors located on college campuses nationwide.

The report, which aired on ABC's "Primetime" Thursday night, showed how ABC interns posing as tourists were able to gain access to high-security areas inside A&M's nuclear reactor facility without background checks or proof of identification.

The report showed footage of an A&M student conducting a tour of the Nuclear Science Center (NSC).

"Yeah, there's no, like, there's no guards and stuff," the student told the interns, who were standing in front of the nuclear reactor pool and recording the tour.

The easy accessibility to the reactor pool, which holds 17 kilograms of uranium, would provide anyone the opportunity to throw in a backpack full of explosives, said Brian Ross, the ABC reporter.

Dan Reece, the director of the NSC, said there were many false accusations in ABC's report.

"You'll notice that they did not show any unlocked doors or backpacks at A&M," Reece said.

"We are allowed to give tours to the public by the federal government, and visitors are allowed to use cameras."

Reece said if small explosions were put into the reactor pool, the explosion would make a mess inside the NSC but do nothing beyond that. He said the walls of the pool are made of 5-foot-thick cement.

"If that happened, I might not have a very pretty place to work the next day, but the health and safety of the public and students are our main concern," he said.

"Primetime" reported that the reactor on A&M's campus is running on highly-enriched uranium or weapons-grade material, which is 90 percent enriched uranium; however, according to a fact sheet issued by the University, the fuel on which A&M's reactor runs is 60-percent enriched uranium.

The NSC is in the process of converting the fuel to 20-percent enriched uranium, according to the fact sheet.

Leslie Braby, an A&M nuclear engineering professor, said it would be extremely difficult to steal the fuel or create a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is a weapon made of conventional explosives, such as dynamite, and radioactive material, which scatters radiation and contamination in the air, he said.

"Even if there were 12 people willing to use a suicide attack on (the reactor), there still wouldn't be enough time to do it before the police would respond," Braby said.

Braby said the reactor is located underneath 30 feet of water and that to get to the fuel would take a very long time.

"If people came in on a tour (to attempt anything), we would know it long before they could accomplish anything," he said.

The reactor's history

A&M's nuclear reactor began operation in 1961, during the height of the Cold War, as a part of an effort to educate the public about nuclear reactors, Braby said.

The nuclear reactor located in the NSC is used by the University, as well as by private organizations, for research in many fields, he said.

"Besides radiating silicon samples to use in computers, we produce radioisotopes for cancer research," he said.

Although the reactor has many functions, its main purpose is education, Braby said.

"The reactor is used to teach," he said. "Many nuclear engineering students have lab classes (at the Center), and the Center also hosts students from high schools and even grade schools to tour the reactor and learn about nuclear energy."

Approximately 2,000 students participate in tours of the nuclear reactor facility every year, according to a press release by the University.

Safety measures

The research reactor is in full compliance with all federal regulations, and all security measures are in place and checked on a continual basis, A&M President Robert M. Gates said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon to address information expected to be in ABC's report.

Because former presidents and other federal officials use nearby Easterwood Airport, the facility has passed tests conducted by the Secret Service and other high-level security agencies, he said.

"The big thing is that not everyone knows how security works (at the NSC)," said Elliot Snell, a student who works in the NSC. "We can't just tell anyone. The reason it works so well is because no one knows about it."

Snell, a senior nuclear engineering major, said all people who go to the NSC go through training and know how to respond in an emergency situation.

"Nuclear engineering students who come for labs must take a class to learn about safety, including people from campus who are doing research," Snell said. "When we have people tour (the facility), we instruct them in the correct safety procedures."

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