September 7, 2005
Nuke Reactors on Campuses Keep Low Profile
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- For University of Missouri tailgaters, the name of the new parking lot down the hill from Memorial Stadium is little more than a curiosity: Reactor Field, a nod to the nearby nuclear research reactor.
The nation's largest university-based reactor keeps an intentionally low local profile, despite its cutting-edge research into promising cancer drugs.
But among regulators and nuclear energy watchdogs, it has a troubling distinction: The reactor is one of only two university reactors still unable to convert highly enriched uranium - an ingredient crucial to building nuclear weapons - to a safer fuel.
"These things have been used for education for so long, the operators don't seem to accept they can be used for nuclear weapons," said George Bunn, a professor at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation who helped negotiate the 1968 global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
As little as 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium is needed to build a nuclear bomb on the scale of the one dropped on Hiroshima 60 years ago. Smaller bombs could use as little as 12 kilograms, experts say.
The Missouri reactor's federal license limits to five kilograms the amount of unirradiated, or "fresh" highly enriched uranium.
The nation's other university reactor with fresh HEU is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT officials declined to disclose the amount stored there, though previously published reports suggest at least nine kilograms are in the reactor at any given time.
The distinction between irradiated and unirradiated fuel is significant. Once uranium-based fuel is doused with radiation, the number of isotopes rapidly diminishes, making it unsuitable as a weapon.
Research reactors sprouted worldwide in the wake of President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program in 1953, including at dozens of American colleges. But by 1978, Cold War tensions and security concerns prompted a Department of Energy initiative to convert the fuel at research reactors to the low-enriched alternative more commonly found at commercial power reactors.
"Domestic and international security concerns dictate very strongly that we halt the use of research reactor fuels which contain highly enriched uranium because of its nuclear explosive properties," then-Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Victor Gilinsky wrote to the MIT reactor director on Oct. 7, 1983. "Universities, especially, should make every effort to shift away from nuclear explosive fuels."
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. The University of Florida and Texas A&M are scheduled to convert their reactors next year, and more federal money is budgeted to speed the work at the University of Wisconsin, Washington, Purdue and Oregon State.
The emphasis on conversion of American research reactors only increased after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered enhanced security at nuclear sites in the wake of concerns that terrorists would target such power supplies.
That leaves Missouri and MIT among the 31 research and test reactors worldwide that cannot switch from highly enriched uranium because of technical limitations, primarily because of smaller reactor core sizes.
The Department of Energy has set a target date of 2014 to convert the remaining reactors.
At MIT, officials have set aside $50,000 to expedite the conversion process, said reactor director John Bernard.
"If that fuel does get through its test phase, we're in a position to move rapidly at that point," he said. "There's no reason not to convert."
At Missouri, though, officials hope to upgrade the 10-megawatt reactor to 20 megawatts - an increase contingent on continued use of highly enriched uranium.
Reactor director Ralph Butler declined an Associated Press interview request, but in a written response said that a power upgrade would enhance the university's ability to produce radioactive isotopes used for medical diagnosis and treatment.
"The majority of isotopes used in the United States today are provided by foreign suppliers," Butler wrote. "The nation needs a consistent, reliable supply of radioactive and stable isotopes for medical, security, space power and research uses."