Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Security at UW's nuclear reactor questioned

Disputing ABC News report, university calls site 'inherently safe'



The University of Wisconsin-Madison defended the security of its nuclear research reactor on Thursday, calling an ABC News report that found "gaping holes" at it and other university reactors sensational.

College students, who investigated the 25 reactors last summer for ABC, found that unmanned guard booths, a guard who appeared to be asleep, unlocked doors and guided tours provided easy access to control rooms and reactor pools that hold radioactive fuel, according to the report, which aired Thursday evening on "Primetime."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which monitors the reactors, told ABC they were safe and secure. But those in Congress and nuclear security experts said the findings suggest the reactors are easy targets for terrorist attack or theft.

When investigators visited UW-Madison's nuclear reactor, which is in the Mechanical Engineering Building not far from Camp Randall Stadium, they found no guards and no metal detectors. A "virtual tour" on the university's Web site included detailed photos, descriptions and diagrams of the reactor, the fuel elements and the control room.

The reactor manager told the investigators it would take at least three weeks for them to get a tour of the laboratory that contains the reactor and that a locked door with a window of the reactor was the closest they'd get. But when the investigators knocked, UW-Madison students allowed them to step in the doorway of the laboratory to take photographs, even though they hadn't received clearance.

"This is no security," Ronald E. Timm, a security consultant who analyzed the vulnerability of the nation's nuclear laboratories for the Department of Energy, told ABC of UW-Madison's nuclear reactor. "In this case, there was nothing there to even challenge."

But UW-Madison's Michael Corradini, who oversees research with the reactor, said Thursday that it was "designed to be inherently safe" even in the event of an attack.

The reactor's radioactive core, which is about the size of a garbage can, sits near the bottom of a pool of water about 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide. Surrounding the pool is a concrete wall 12 feet thick. The doorway to the laboratory is 15 feet from the wall.

A person who wanted to steal the uranium would die from radioactive exposure while trying to swim toward it, Corradini said. The university has an emergency plan in the event of an attack or fire, he said.

Corradini said the ABC report was misleading because it made it seem like the research reactor is supposed to be off limits, when in fact its purpose is to educate students and the public. He was giving a tour of the laboratory to high school students when the investigators showed up. He said the investigators told him they were engineering students from Columbia University who were thinking about transferring to UW-Madison.

"I don't see it as fair and honest journalism," Corradini said, explaining that university officials check the identification of people seeking tours before scheduling one for them, a process that can take weeks.

The only problem, he said, was that the UW-Madison students allowed the investigators to step inside the doorway to take photographs even though they weren't part of a tour. He said the students, who are paid $10.50 an hour, have been retrained.

UW-Madison realized soon after the investigators left who they were and what they were doing, Corradini said. It contacted other universities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to let them know what had happened.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials conducted an impromptu review of the university's reactor in August, Corradini said, but have given no indication of their findings.

In the "Primetime" report, Roy Zimmerman, a commission director, voiced concerns about the security breaches at UW-Madison and two other schools. But in a letter sent to ABC Wednesday after receiving an advance viewing of parts of the report, Zimmerman said, "Based on our review of your observations, our continuing review of site-specific security enhancements, and our knowledge of the potential risks, we continue to believe that the nation's research and test reactors remain safe and secure." He added that the "radiological consequences" of an attack on the reactors would be minimal due to "the small quantities of radioactive material present, the reactor structure and shielding designs, and the safety and security measures in place."

UW-Madison is one of six universities with a research reactor that uses weapons-grade uranium. Since 1978, the Department of Energy has been working to eliminate the use of weapons-grade uranium in civilian research reactors with the goal of replacing it with low-enriched uranium wherever possible.

The department converted the reactors at 11 universities between 1984 and 2000. But according to a July 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, the department has yet to fund conversions at UW-Madison, Purdue University, Texas A&M University, the University of Florida, Oregon State University and Washington State University even though the conversions are feasible. There are also two research reactors in the U.S. not affiliated with universities that use weapons-grade uranium.

The Department of Energy told the GAO that the conversions would cost between $5 million and $10 million each. But the State Department took issue with those estimates, since the Energy Department spent around $10 million total to convert the 11 other university reactors.

"Maybe there's a good reason why the final eight should be five to 10 times more expensive to convert than the first 11, but frankly we doubt it," the State Department's Christopher Burnham said in a letter to the GAO dated July 1, 2004.

Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Corradini said UW-Madison expected to get funding to convert its reactor by 2008.

"We'd love to move the schedule ahead," he said. "But we have no control."