Commentary on ABC's nuclear report
By Lefteri Tsoukalas
As a nuclear engineer, I believe deeply that nuclear energy has vast potential to make our lives better: through generation of electrical power, through creation of new and better procedures to diagnose and treat disease, through development of enhanced scientific processes, through industrial applications.
I also understand and respect the enormous destructive power of this form of energy. I appreciate the fact that many people have a deep-seated fear of the dangers nuclear power presents when it is used for hostile purposes or mishandled. However, I know that when properly managed, nuclear power is safe and efficient, and I believe the American public will benefit from acquiring a better understanding of the science to which I have devoted my life.
That is why I am deeply disturbed by an ABC news report aired by the network on Oct. 13. The report cynically exploited people's instinctive fear of nuclear energy by misrepresenting both the threat from, and the nature of, research reactors, such as the one for which I am responsible at Purdue University. ABC sent college students who were working as journalism interns to a number of university reactor facilities, including the one at Purdue. The idea was to see whether they could get into the facilities and to assess security measures.
The interns had no trouble gaining access because we welcome visitors to the reactor. In fact, our Web site and printed literature invite the public to schedule tours, which are conducted by staff trained in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's security measures. The ABC interns saw what any visitor would see. If they had identified themselves as investigative journalists, they would have been given the same tour and the same information no more, no less.
By the time they had been to two universities, the interns' behavior had given them away, and all the subsequent sites they visited knew who they were and their purpose. They still were given escorted tours. Yet ABC's report maintained the fiction that the interns had duped those responsible for security at each of the reactors. It also accepted at face value the interns' evaluations of security measures evaluations they were not qualified to make.
The network's premise was that the American public is threatened by the ease with which research reactors can be accessed. This is patently false.
In Purdue's case, the reactor utilizes a tiny amount of fuel. At full power, it can produce roughly the energy needed to illuminate 10 100-watt light bulbs. While there is no such thing as complete safety in any endeavor, Purdue's reactor is as safe and secure as any laboratory can be. Located three stories underground, it is entered through an academic building, which is easily accessible to the public. However, the reactor itself is behind two locked doors and can be accessed only in the company of authorized staff fully trained in NRC security procedures.
While nuclear fuels are by nature hazardous, the possibility of an accidental or deliberate threat to public safety from this facility is close to zero. In fact, a corner gas station or the fuel tank for a backyard barbecue grill presents a greater danger than this reactor.
When research reactors operate, they do so well below boiling conditions, instead of the very high pressures and temperatures found at nuclear power plants. Research reactors operate safely with simple, easily supplemented cooling systems. Possible incidents involving research reactors have been analyzed many times, and the consequences would be confined to very small areas, usually within the research reactor facility itself. If a terrorist set off an explosion in the reactor, it would be unlikely to endanger anyone who was not inside the facility. An Oklahoma City-style truck bombing graphically suggested by ABC as a threat would cause a great deal of damage and human suffering, but would release no radiation from the underground reactor.
Theft of the nuclear material from a research reactor would be virtually impossible. The extremely heavy construction of the facility and nature of the installation make removing the fuel a major construction project requiring heavy equipment and the supervision of engineers. It could not be done covertly. There are much easier ways to get nuclear materials, including from medical facilities, delivery trucks and the smoke detectors sold at any discount store.
ABC a network with great power and responsibility chose to ignore an enormous amount of factual information in the interest of sensationalism. In the process, they have misled the American people and many public officials. Only time will tell whether this irresponsible report has done permanent damage to an academic discipline that America needs to nurture and further develop.
I have the benefit of the knowledge gained from a lifetime of study, so ABC has not shaken my faith in the value of continued study of nuclear energy. My confidence in ABC's national news is another matter.
Lefteri Tsoukalas is head of Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering.
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