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October 14, 2005

Purdue: University's nuclear reactor safe, federal guidelines followed

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University – the leading producer of nuclear engineering graduates in the nation – today (Friday, Oct. 14) refuted claims made by ABC News, based on information gathered by student interns, concerning the safety of nuclear reactors on college campuses.

"Purdue has followed all procedures required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," said Purdue spokesperson Jeanne V. Norberg. "The allegations in this report are unfounded, misleading and irresponsible. They prey on the public's fear of nuclear energy, and they misrepresent the nature of reactors that are designed for teaching and research."

The Purdue reactor, a two-foot cube, is seated in concrete three stories under the Electrical Engineering Building and produces only about one-millionth as much energy as that of a commercial reactor. Two sets of locked doors protect the reactor room, and admittance is only allowed by appointment and under the supervision of a staff member fully trained in security procedures set by the NRC. The building itself is unlocked for classes and research, but the reactor rooms are always secured.

"It would be impossible to covertly steal the uranium," said Lefteri Tsoukalas, (pronounced LeftTERY SUE kalas) head of the School of Nuclear Engineering. "The extremely heavy construction of the facility and nature of the installation make removing the fuel a major construction project requiring heavy equipment. That obviously cannot be accomplished without our knowledge.

"There are much easier ways to procure radioactive materials, such as uranium. There are even household products that could be purchased that would provide an equivalent amount. Medical facilities or even delivery vehicles also are more vulnerable and easier targets."

The amount of fuel used in the Purdue reactor makes it unlikely to pose a threat, he said.

"Each university reactor is different, and ours is relatively small. It uses a tiny amount of fuel," he said. "We do not use it to generate electricity. The heat from our reactor, when at full throttle, is the equivalent of that produced with 10 100-watt light bulbs."

The construction of the reactor, combined with the fact that the metal-sealed uranium is under 17 feet of water and could not be dispersed into the air, makes it even safer, he said.

"Any kind of explosive a visitor could bring into the reactor room would not be sufficient to damage the reactor core," he said. "Even a truck bomb would not be sufficient. The corner gas station presents more of a threat to safety than this reactor ever could."

Built in 1962, Purdue's reactor is used for research and educational purposes and is available to the public for scheduled tours. More than 700 visitors toured the facility in the past year.

Purdue this year has 180 students enrolled in nuclear engineering – 120 undergraduate and 60 graduate – more than any other university in the nation. Besides future engineers, students from a wide variety of majors use the reactor, from those studying health science, chemistry and pharmacy, to others in agriculture and biological sciences. With the reactor they learn how to explore at the subatomic level to create novel treatments for cancer, better crops and new medicines.

"It is critical in the field of nanotechnology," Tsoukalas said.

In the 1970s there were more than 80 university research reactors.

"Now, we're down to about two dozen," he said. "If we were to close what few reactors we have, we would seriously impair our ability to do science that is very important to the health and welfare of the nation. That is unthinkable."

The university follows the NRC rules for security at its facility, reviews its application of those procedures frequently and will continue to do so, Norberg said.

In a letter responding to the ABC report, Roy P. Zimmerman, the NRC's director of nuclear safety and incident response, stated: "We continue to believe that the nation's research and test reactors remain safe and secure."

Sources: Jeanne Norberg, (765) 494-2084, (765) 423-8662 (pager), jnorberg@purdue.edu

Lefteri Tsoukalas, (765) 494-5742, (765) 404-9911 (cell)

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu



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