Monday, October 17, 2005

Test Reactor Fuel Not Vulnerable

If there's one thing I've learned about nuclear technology in the 17 months I've worked at NEI, it's this: Nuclear energy isn't rocket science.

Unfortunately, it's harder.

Which is why my head spun around so quickly at the conclusions drawn by the ABC News report, "Loose Nukes on Main Street," and in particular, the story on last Thursday's edition of Primetime Live titled, "Radioactive Roadtrip".

Despite the fact that I've worked here full-time for better than a year, I still have to make sure to doublecheck my facts to get everything right. So when I saw that ABC News and its interns were making some startling conclusions about how easy it would be to steal nuclear materials from one of the research reactors, I knew the report was in trouble from the word go.

If you want the truth about nuclear energy, you need to talk to real professionals. Here's an e-mail I received earlier today from John Lyngdal, a retired senior reactor operator (SRO) who used to work at both Oregon State University (OSU) and Reed College:

I'm a "retired" SRO who years ago pulled rods at the Reed College reactor and also had experiments performed at the Oregon State University, so it was some interest to me of how this piece of pseudo-journalism would portray these facilities... I chatted with another operator who was onsite when a shipment of HEU fuel arrived. The fuel was transported by an armed military(?) convoy to the OSU site, the spent elements were transferred to the storage racks, and the new fuel added to the core. A core excess measurement was performed followed by a power calibration with armed guards on watch. They didn't leave until the core had operated at 900 MW for over an hour at which point the fuel was considered self-protected by the intense radiation generated by the fission products...

Having moved fuel rods in and out of the core of the Reed facility, I find the ABC report even more incredulous... One thing I do remember is that there was a mark on the fuel movement tool that was assigned a spotter, that would call out if it approached the surface of the pool. This was of course backed up by the RAM located at the edge of the pool. To make a long story short, we were told that an irradiated fuel element had a radiation field sufficient to place the fuel handler into convulsions(before they finally succumbed to the radiation exposure effects) before it breached the surface of the pool. Beyond this, the idea of a SCUBA equipped terrorist diving to the core to steal the fuel might seem plausible to the public, but not to a person versed in the effects of exposure to a radiation 100-200K rad/hr radiation field.
Something to think about.

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