Nuclear reactor laboratory to be decommissioned

The physical activities to decommission and completely tear down the University’s nuclear reactor laboratory will begin later this month. A public informational meeting was held Wednesday next door to the reactor at Springfield and Goodwin avenues.

The reactor has been shut down since 1998 after running for nearly 40 years. The dean of the College of Engineering at the time decided that he would not sign to renew the reactor’s license, so it had to be shut down.

James Stubbins, University professor and head of the department of nuclear plasma and radiological engineering, said there weren’t any safety concerns for the reactor and the decision was made on budget concerns. However, he added the cost to tear down the laboratory is much more expensive than it would’ve cost to continue running the reactor. Stubbins said the decision to stop the reactor may have been different if it needed to be made today or even two or three years later than it was. The nuclear reactor was named TRIGA for its many functions: teaching, research, isotope and general atomics.

“We’re doing this other places now, so in terms of the campus I think it’s a real loss,” Stubbins said. “There’s no longer anything that matches what that reactor could do. We think it’s a big disadvantage for students.”

But the reactor has been dormant for 13 years now and Stubbins said it’s mostly only been used for tours recently. The actual tearing down of the entire lab was held off until now due to financial reasons and because some of the radioactive isotopes died away in the time the reactor was dormant, according to Stubbins.

In 2004, the fuel was shipped from the reactor, which essentially eliminated its radioactivity. Stubbins said the building could have stayed for about 10 more years, but once this process is completed in June, the University will be able to use the space for however it decides. And even in its destruction the laboratory may be used for teaching purposes.

“We’re recording and doing other things to watch as this process takes place, so we’re hoping to maybe form some sort of course or something for students to learn from this,” Stubbins said.

Although the people involved with the project do not foresee a nuclear hazard, Stubbins said one of the reasons for the meeting is to inform people what’s going on when they see trucks going back and forth from the site. There are office spaces and research labs around the site and faculty members were assured that they won’t be affected by the workers.

Rich Holm, reactor administrator, said all the work on the site will be done in a controlled manner.

“Even if you take everything into account there’s less in that entire bio-shield than there are in some of the labs on campus that use radioactivity on a day-to-day basis,” Holm said. “There’s nothing that’ll create problems for anybody in the offices around us, the levels are just way too low. This all will take so long because of all the precaution and care to make sure that that will not happen.”

Help will be brought in from outside the University to help regulate radioactivity. Jeremy Tapp, health physicist, said he’ll be doing his own surveillance of the site.

“For the inspections we’ll be taking a look at workers’ safety, public safety, protection of the environment and any potential releases that could happen and ultimately making sure any residual activity left on the site is cleaned up to our criteria,” Tapp said.