Thursday, October 13, 2005

ABC News Posts Test Reactor Story

The story we've been anticipating since late August on security at test and research reactors by ABC News has just been posted over at the network's Web site. I've only taken a cursory look at the story so far, but needless to say it fails to mention many of the details we've uncovered in the last few weeks -- including the fact that personnel at a number of reactors alerted the NRC to the presence of the interns, and the fact that they were acting suspiciously and asking questions about security.

Once again, for those of you concerned specifically with the test and research reactors, here's a statement from my NEI colleague Felix Killar on exactly what the situation is as it stands today:

Every research reactor has multiple layers and techniques of security. These include surveillance and detection equipment, and alarms with an armed security force response.

University research reactors are licensed and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Since 9/11, the NRC has required site-specific security enhancements for reactors of two megawatts of generating capacity and greater, and for reactors of less than two megawatts of capacity. There continues to be coordination between the NRC and the research reactor community on ways to further enhance security commensurate with the small volumes of irradiated fuel in these reactors. A second round of security requirements from the NRC is expected in the near future.

All of the uranium fuel at research reactors is either in the reactor vessel or has been irradiated in the reactor and is securely stored. For this reason, even a suicidal terrorist who might be willing to risk lethal exposure to steal this material – which is typically quite heavy – would have to spend some period of time trying to steal it. The material is not accessible in a way that would allow anyone to make off with that material in 20 or 30 minutes.

The amount of uranium fuel in research reactors – most of which are below ground level – is sufficiently small that even in the event of accident – there is virtually no risk to the general public even in close proximity to the buildings that house the research reactors.
I'll have more in the morning once I get a chance to talk to some of my colleagues, but in the meantime, if you work at any of the research reactors named in the story, please get into contact with us here at NEI Nuclear Notes, as we'd like to hear about what you might have seen when the interns came to visit.

We're sure to see some pickup online, as Drudge is already fronting the story. And be sure to read this reaction from Red State.

UPDATE: Lots of interesting details from today's Kansas City Star (registration required), which talked to officials at Kansas State, Missouri-Columbia and Ohio State:

Posing as prospective graduate students, two young women tried to get inside Kansas State University’s nuclear reactor last summer.

They videotaped the building and asked questions about security, according to reactor workers. But they weren’t terrorists or protesters. Instead, they were part of an undercover team of ABC News interns probing for security weaknesses at reactors on 25 college campuses, including K-State and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Even before the two women made it to K-State’s reactor, however, their strange behavior had drawn the attention of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Further...

When [Melia] Patria and [Hsing] Wei showed up at the K-State reactor, the staff had a good idea who the women really were. After other campus reactors reported similarly strange visits, federal authorities had figured out that the visitors were actually undercover reporters. The FBI passed the tip along to K-State.

In hopes of proving their suspicions, reactor employees asked the women to pose for a photograph. To get the shot, Cullens said, he had to resort to his own little deception.

“They were playing the flirt card to get information,” he said. “We wanted a picture of them for the FBI, so we flirted back.”

At one point, a reactor researcher asked the women what had drawn them to K-State. One of them, Cullens recalled, said her boyfriend lived in Kansas.

“We asked where, and she sort of pointed off to the southwest and said, ‘Over there,’ ” he said. “We figured there had to be something strange going on.”

And here's more details on the trip the interns took to Ohio State University:

Ohio State University’s reactor was one of the first visited by Wei and Patria. Earle Holland, director of research information, said that the women acted suspiciously and that the staff asked them to leave before the tour ended.

After the women left, the staff called the police, who called the FBI, who called the NRC and Homeland Security.

When you review the ABC News account of the Ohio State visit, there's no mention of the fact that the interns were asked to leave before the tour ended -- just a quote from a security consultant proclaiming that "the system failed". Seems to me that the opposite is actually the case, and that the system worked, which is exactly why authorities were alerted, and many of the institutions involved knew the interns were on their way. More later.

ABC News has posted photos of Wei and Patria at the "Loose Nukes" Web page, along with the rest of the interns. Also, our friend Pat Cleary has cross-posted his Red State item on the story over at the NAM Blog.

UPDATE: My colleague Lisa Stiles-Shell had something to say about this passage from ABC News on their visit to MIT:
An ABC News producer parked a large Ryder truck next to the reactor facility and was not questioned or challenged.
Which led Lisa to write to me:
Yep, they're right. You can drive down that street. Hell, you can LIVE across the street from it and I did. So what? They can't steal the stuff. And there isn't enough material there to cause significant death and destruction even if you dropped a truck full of explosives directly on top of the reactor pool--other than the deaths and destruction from the initial explosion, of course.
Pure, unadulterated hysteria. Sound science nowhere to be found.

UPDATE: NRC has posted a letter to ABC's Brian Ross from Roy Zimmerman of the agency's Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response:
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 RTRs remain safe and secure. Furthermore, we recently issued letters to each RTR licensee to obtain additional information and emphasize our expectations for maintaining effective RTR security in the current threat environment. In these letters, we requested each RTR to verify its implementation of the previous site-specific security measures and provide additional details. The NRC will review these measures.

Moreover, the radiological consequences of an attack on RTRs would be low due to the small quantities of radioactive material present, the reactor structure and shielding designs, and the safety and security measures in place. Also, attempts to sabotage the facility or steal the nuclear material would trigger an armed response and activate pre-established emergency response plans. Even if a sabotage attack were attempted against an RTR, we are convinced that the potential for significant radiation-related health effects to the public is highly unlikely.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs just linked to the story, but apparently hasn't caught wind of the news that ABC's methods are coming into question. Somebody at Red State is wondering why he hasn't picked up on it yet.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: MIT is now responding to a number of assertions that ABC News made about its visit to that institution's research reactor:
MIT and the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory take a rigorous approach toward safety and desire to learn from any investigation. However the issues raised by ABC have been thoroughly studied and reviewed. They do not represent security breaches, nor are they issues with which MIT and the reactor lab are unfamiliar.

The floor plans were obtained from a web site unaffiliated with MIT that archives old material previously removed from the web. Material is posted to this site without regard to its currency or accuracy. These plans are also very rudimentary and are not sensitive.

The reactor's operating schedule provides no sensitive information nor can any be inferred from it. In fact, MIT posts the operating schedule online because, as one of the foremost research reactor labs in the country, it provides researchers at MIT and at other universities with the information essential for planning scientific experiments at the laboratory.

With respect to the truck, it did not actually enter the secure perimeter around the reactor. The perimeter distances have been confirmed by an independent study commissioned by MIT to assess the impact of possible terrorist actions against the MIT reactor following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The study ran through all the likely scenarios of attack and concluded that the core of the MIT research reactor would not be breached. The study determined that even in the unlikely event that the exterior building surrounding the reactor core was damaged, the core itself would not be harmed and there would be no release of radiation. It also determined that a large bomb going off in a truck parked within even a few feet of the reactor building would not breach the containment of the reactor's core.

MIT's reactor's core is quite small, about the size of a dormitory refrigerator, and is fully enclosed in a radiation-shielded structure consisting of several feet of concrete and other materials, which itself is housed within the containment building comprising different layers of concrete and steel, all of which would be nearly impossible to breach at one time.

MIT's director of security and police chief, John Difava, is a former superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police force who was appointed by the governor to direct and coordinate security at Logan Airport following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He works with law enforcement officials at the local, state and federal levels on security plans for MIT's research reactor.

"In the event of any sort of attack, I would choose to be in the reactor lab because the containment building is the safest place on campus," said Difava.

For a copy of MIT's letter to ABC News, click here (PDF). The Boston Business Journal has already picked up on the MIT statement.

ANOTHER UPDATE: TVNewser picks up the threads.

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25 comments:

Matthew66 said...

ABC's motives in undertaking this story are obviously ratings and advertising revenue driven. What the Carnegie Foundation's motives in funding it are, I would not know. I watched the segment on the ABC's Good Morning America this morning and whilst it concerns me that some of the universities have lax security, given the nature of the materials involved, it does not alarm me. I do think however that an investigation by the NRC is warranted and that colleges should beef up their security. After all, just as Medical Schools don't let just anyone into the anatomy labs, physics faculties should be more discerning about who they let into the reactor labs.

Once the universities have lifted their game, ABC or some other "news" organization will probably go after dentists' offices and their x-ray equipment.

docdave said...

What motivates ABC and all the major media is stories that induce fear. They are not interested in facts or truth.

Anonymous said...

We are becoming a country which us suspicious of everyone and everything. Looking constantly around the corner for terrorists, or ways in which we may be terrorized, all thanks to our current administration. The true terrorists are in Washington manipulating the general public into a frenzy, costing untold thousands of lives to fabricate ways to pad their pockets and the pockets of their cronies. Please,wake up America. This man and his minions must be removed, and quickly.

Ignatz said...

Yeah, Anonymous, and the massacres of Americans on Sept. 11th never happened. Nor have any of the other jihad attacks on the West over the last 30 years.

Thank you for playing.

babz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

This is nothing new for ABC.

Remember ABC's documendacity a couple of decades ago, "The Fire Unleashed"? The one where they interviews some lady who lived with a dozen cats who claimed she could feel a wave of bad vibes coming from Three Mile Island at the time of the accident?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, "anonymous". Let me see if I got this straight. The evil BusHitlerMcChimpyHalliburton militarist cabal called up ABC and told them to cook up this story about college campus nuclear reactors not being secure so the BusHitlerMcChimpyHalliburton could invade Iran for it's oil and scare everybody into joining the military or buying bonds...*rolls eyes*.

To quote the famous Lt. General Honoroe: "You are stuck on stupid!".

dantes said...

This is invaluable information. Thanks.

Loren in Honolulu said...

The NRC exhibits mature judgment, takes prudent action, has instituted effective security policy.

ABC (and CBS and the rest of the MSM) are so frantic, they have lost all reason, abandoned all morality, have zero credibility, and extremely poor judgement.

The two chicks who came up with this story are just that - two chicks that didn't do their homework. Duh...

This is why I get ALL my news from the internet, NONE from the TV which stays OFF in my house.

Anonymous said...

I will watch this latest bit of propaganda from ABC wearing, of course, the mandatory tinfoil helmet.

Jakemeister said...

Maybe there is some hype to the story, but to sit around and say everything is safe and sound is utterly foolish.

Bill said...

This takes me back to the more innocent days of 1970. My freshman roomie and I wondered into the research reactor building (closed in the mid 90's) at Georgia Tech. We looked around - I remember seeing the thick glass leading into some sort of chamber, and then left without seeing a soul. I didn't see any red button labeled "Push to Detonate."

Anonymous said...

Here's a cute anecdote. A few blcoks from the MIT nuclear reactor is the new Necco plant, where all of the nation's tootsie rolls are made. (The older plant, now a cubicle farm, made all of Necco's offerings, such as necco wafers and thin mints also.) Guess which of these poses more danger to the neighborhood? If you guessed the reactor, you'd be wrong. For reasons I do not want to know, the Necco plant stores large amounts of liquid ammonia. This could really ruin my day one day. The reactor, however, needs a lot of outside help before it can endanger anyone.

Anonymous said...

If this is just some horrible scheme by ABC to produce ratings, why were they able to get into the reactor rooms at all?

Jakemeister said...

Of course the media is going to hype stuff like that, it's made to be hyped. If you take the recent rash of low level terror attacks at major schools, and add the enormous # of foreign grad students in engineering and physics, many who hail from Islamic countries, would it hurt to be a little more cautious? I'm sorry, being new to this blog, I feel that the people in charge are just industry flacks who first instinct is to deny or cover up.

Dusty said...

I watched that portion of the report on the evening news with a dinner time interest but I would swear that the report noted something about there being enough material to make two bombs. I just can't be sure if that comment was intended to mean at each facility. Thinking about it though, why would they make that reference if it meant getting the material from all the facilities, which would be a feat of magic to do.

At the end of the report, somebody (I was at the refrigerator at the time) said ABC would continue to keep their eye on the "nukes" situation for us. I felt safe.

I think I'll look for the podcast to watch again.

M. Simon said...

To do any serious damage from the control room you first have to disconnect multiple safety systems and then yank the rods.

If a research reactor shuts down it is not like shutting down a power plant. In a research reactor all you lose is the current experiment.

So the odds of this particular tour of the control room being a safety hazard is nil.

It is also quite likely that research reactors are designed to be intrinsically safe - i.e. once the power goes above a certain level the reactor shuts down. So you get a series of power pulses (or more likely a high steady state).

Then you dump boron into the cooling water and it all shuts down. The reactor is ruined. Danger minimal.

Worst comes to worst - you dump the water in the reactor pool and it all shuts down. The residual heat is removed by air cooling. The reactor is destroyed. Not much of a problem.

There is a reason research reactors are limited to a certain size. It is so the heat output of the decay products is such that air cooling will handle an emergency.

Now I admit I'm a Naval Power Reactor guy so some of the above design features are speculation and may vary according to the type of research being done.

But that is how I would do it.

The NRC is fairly good when it comes to reactor designs. Especially the basics. They have overlooked some obscure design faults (such as the one that was a major contributor to Three Mile Island - a burned out light bulb). What is interesting is that in my Naval Reactor class we studied that very fault and came to the conclusion that it was a serious stupidity.

So they aren't perfect. So given that they know that - intrinsic safety in a research reactor design is probably a requirement.

M. Simon said...

The elaborate safty systems (emergency cooling water) in a power reactor are due to the high heat production of decay products even after the reactor is shut down.

If you limit power output you limit the decay heat.

Anonymous said...

I worked at NRC HQ one summer, years ago, and I think this story represents major progress in nuclear reporting by the news media. ABC's story seems to have been of some use to the NRC, which means at the very least that ABC's investigators didn't confuse the campus reactor with the campus incinerator. They even seem to have spelled everybody's name correctly!

I wonder what action the ACRS is taking?

Elmo said...

Great work. Splendid.

ABC needing a motive/reason? Why waste the enrgy divining where the door to the alternate dimension lay.

Anything to make Bush look bad. Anything to make the President's job more difficult. Anything to lend succor to murderers.

Next time any bozo big brain undercovers show up? Stage a fake accident/leak. Let em believe they been dosed!

Anonymous said...

"Now I admit I'm a Naval Power Reactor guy so some of the above design features are speculation and may vary according to the type of research being done.

But that is how I would do it."

I work at a research reactor; I can verify that your speculations are accurate. At least where I work.

Anonymous said...

Interesting postings. I am reserving judgment. Initially, I thought it was just more Rove inspired hype to instil fear in the american public and to rile up the democrats saying that Bush is so focused on Iraq that we are not secure at home.
Again, I'll wait and see.

Anonymous said...

At 11:21 PM, Anonymous said...

Wrong. The Necco factory was on Mass Ave and is now a Novartis facility. Cambridge Brands Inc. is on Main St., and is a division of Tootsie Rolls Industries, Inc. Based upon the diversity of products produced int he facility and number of facilities owned by Tootsie Roll it seems doubtful that they are the sole producer of said chocolate nougat.

How about we try to get our facts straight when we (albeit rightly) accuse others of spreading misinformation and fear mongering, 'm-kay?

Anonymous said...

Mmmm, Nuclear Tootsie Rolls. Arrggggh. - Homer

Mike B said...

Mike Simon obviously doesn't know a damn thing about Commercial Nuclear Power. I'm ex Navy Nuke and I've gone on to be a department head in the commercial nuclear world. TMI had nothing to do with a burnt out light bulb. It had everything to do with poor human factors combined with poor training.

Stick to what you know Mike, the start up sources the USN calls reactors