Uranium Reactors on Campus Raise Security Concerns

By Matthew L. Wald
New York Times
August 15, 2004

MADISON, Wis. - The University of Wisconsin's nuclear reactor is an unassuming little model, operated (on Tuesdays and Thursdays only) by students in T-shirts and shorts. In the last few months it has been used to identify the source of pottery shards from an ancient settlement in India, to test whether heart stents work better if they have been irradiated, and to study the water and gas balance that would be present in a future generation of power reactors.

But its fuel is weapons-grade uranium. If it were stolen, experts say, it could give terrorists or criminals a major head start on an atomic bomb.

And Wisconsin is not alone. Five other university research reactors around the country use weapons-grade fuel, even though the federal government has promised for more than two decades to reclaim their uranium and substitute a less enriched variety that is closer to the kind that commercial power plants use.

"We have been on the list for conversion for at least 10 years," said Dr. Michael L. Corradini, the head of the nuclear engineering program here. "We've been waiting for funding from the Department of Energy."

Stealing the fuel here would not be easy. The reactor's radioactive core is near the bottom of a pool of water 27 feet deep, in about two dozen fuel bundles, each weighing 58 pounds. Still, experts say there is no reason to run the risk of theft, since the reactors could run on uranium not suitable for bombs.

The reactors at Wisconsin and the other universities - Oregon State, Washington State, Purdue, Texas A&M and the University of Florida - were first supplied with uranium during the cold war, as a spinoff of the government's Atoms for Peace program. The United States gave the material to research reactors around the world, offering to share nuclear technology if the recipient countries promised not to develop nuclear weapons.

But since 1978, out of concern that the uranium might be turned into bomb fuel, the Department of Energy has spent millions of dollars to develop lower-grade fuel and convert scores of reactors to run on it. As of July 30, according to the Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office), 39 of 105 research reactors worldwide had converted or were in the process. But the six campus reactors in this country are not among them.

"It's outrageous that they're still doing this," said Victor Gilinsky, who was an early advocate for switching to low-enriched fuel as a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1975 to 1984. There may not be quite enough on hand at Wisconsin to make a bomb, he said in a telephone interview, but "who says that somebody has to get enough in one shot?"

Campus reactors have far less security than places where the government keeps bomb-grade uranium, and they may have foreign students of unknown political sympathies, Mr. Gilinsky said. And he pointed out that the United States is seeking to persuade countries all over the world to stop civilian use of bomb-grade uranium.

"It's a bad example," he said. "How can we go around the world asking people to shift over if we're not shifting over ourselves?"

Asked why the research reactors had not been converted, Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which is in charge of nonproliferation, was blunt. "There hasn't been enough funding," he said. He noted that in May, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham promised to seek conversion of all the reactors by 2014. But he said he could not give a schedule for the campus reactors.

Mr. Franklin also acknowledged that his department does not know just what the cost would be. The Energy Department told the accountability office that it had converted 11 research reactors at universities for a total of $10 million, but that the remaining ones would cost $5 million to $10 million each. That drew a sharp rejoinder from the State Department, which wants the reactors converted.

"Maybe there's a good reason why the final eight should be 5 to 10 times more expensive to convert than the first 11, but frankly we doubt it," a letter from the department said. The State Department added that the Energy Department "has been reluctant to fund more conversions and has a tendency to overstate the potential costs to deflect pressure to spend money on them."

While the details of conversion have proved to be complicated, the concept is simple. In nature, more than 99 percent of uranium is of a type called U-238, which is very difficult to split in a nuclear reaction and thus not good fuel for reactors or bombs. About 0.7 percent is U-235, which splits easily. Power reactors in this country use uranium fuel in which the proportion of U-235 has been raised to 3 to 5 percent, which is low-enriched fuel. Anything over 20 percent is considered highly enriched. Bombs are generally over 90 percent. Some research reactors run on fuel enriched to over 90 percent; Wisconsin's is 70 percent, and the quantity is probably a little less than is needed for a bomb.

The reactor here is one three-thousandth as large as a typical power reactor, with a core about the size of a college dorm refrigerator. Nuclear experiments performed here, and the production of isotopes for scientific and medical research, which is a common use of research reactors elsewhere, require a high density of neutrons, the subatomic particles that are released when one atom is split, and which go on to split other atoms in a chain reaction.

An easy way to guarantee a lot of neutrons is to use a lot of U-235. But Energy Department engineers have designed fuel that uses a larger quantity of low-enriched uranium, so the total number of U-235 atoms in the core is roughly the same.

John I. Sackett, the associate director of Argonne National Laboratory, who led a team that designed the substitute fuel, said the fuel now in the campus reactors is dangerously radioactive, making it hard to handle. He acknowledged, however, that highly enriched uranium was an easier fuel from which to build a bomb than is plutonium. "It's a less complicated technology," he said.

At reactors, conversion to low-enriched uranium offers no benefits to the researchers or operators, except perhaps to simplify the security rules in force here. University officials will not discuss the details of those rules. The reactor is behind a strong steel door with a steel grate over the windows, and is watched by closed-circuit television, among other precautions.

The reactor operators are paid $10.50 an hour. They recently got a raise to that level, said Dr. Corradini, because someone discovered that campus file clerks were paid more than the reactor operators.

Because the reactor has so much useable uranium and runs so few hours a week, the current fuel load will last about 108 years at current rates of use, according to Robert J. Agasie, the nuclear reactor director. That is probably longer than the reactor itself, but university officials recently won a 20-year extension of its operating license.

"We have re-upped," said John D. Wiley, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We made a commitment to nuclear engineering education years ago and we're sticking with it."

Speaking of security at the reactor, Mr. Wiley said, "We're not supposed to talk about it, but I'm confident." Ordering a conversion to low-enriched fuel was an "unfunded mandate" from government, he said, but he added, "As long as they're paying for it, I'll be fine."