MU nuclear reactor security is already compliant

Wednesday, May 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:39 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In a concession to the continuing specter of terrorist threats, the dozens of nuclear reactors on college campuses nationwide are tightening the security checks required for employees.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued an order April 30 requiring the nation’s 33 research and test reactors, most of which are located at universities, to fingerprint and conduct FBI background checks of anyone with “unescorted access” to radioactive material.

The order follows an identical requirement put in place eight months ago for reactor workers with access to sensitive security information.

Compared to commercial power reactors, the core size and amount of irradiated fuel at research reactors is minuscule.

But unlike commercial nuclear power plants, research reactors can be found in densely populated areas, near college dormitories and classrooms, and are often overseen by campus security guards.

The MU site — the nation’s largest campus-based reactor — is within earshot of the school’s football stadium and basketball arena. And the reactor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the nation’s second largest, is ensconced in the urban Cambridge campus near Boston.

Technical and financial limitations prevent those two reactors from immediately converting their power source.

Both Missouri and MIT use highly enriched uranium, an ingredient crucial to building nuclear weapons.

The new federal requirements duplicate existing security precautions at the Missouri reactor, said director Ralph Butler.

“We continually look at, review and adjust our access controls,” he said. “This order really codifies what we’re already doing.”

MIT also had such safeguards in place before the NRC directive, said reactor director John Bernard.

Research reactors sprouted worldwide after President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program in 1953, including at dozens of American colleges. By 1978, Cold War tensions and security concerns prompted a Department of Energy initiative to convert the fuel used at research reactors to the low-enriched alternative more commonly found at commercial power reactors.

Three decades later, that process remains unfinished.

At least 40 research reactors worldwide have already been converted, including those at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. University research reactors at Oregon State, Purdue, Washington and Wisconsin are scheduled for conversion during the next several years.

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