Reactor security report flawed

By J. Ferguson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, October 14, 2005

Officials: Nuclear materials cannot be used to make terror 'dirty bomb'

An ABC report that labeled the UA's nuclear reactor as a national security threat was decried by officials yesterday, who said the report was inaccurate and sensationalized.

The video report, which showed ABC interns gaining access into the Engineering building where the reactor is located, cites the UA as one of 25 college campuses across the country that could be targets of terrorism.

The ABC report said the nuclear fuel contained in the reactor could be used to make a dirty bomb, which would spread radioactive material across the campus.

But UA officials said the TRIGA reactor on campus has been safe since its installation in 1958, and the amount of fuel in the reactor is insufficient for a dirty bomb.

There are also secret security measures in place to prevent such intrusions, said UA spokesman Paul Allvin.

These secret measures, which Allvin called "invisible" to the community, have been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and consistently tested by FBI, Tucson Police Department and State Homeland Security, he said.

Allvin refused to elaborate on what safety protocols are in place, citing that the NRC prohibits releasing such information, but said there are security measures designed to prevent people from taking sensitive materials to create a bomb.

"Just because you can't see the security measures in place doesn't mean that they aren't there," Allvin said.

Allvin characterized the ABC report as inaccurate and sensationalistic. He said the unlocked door identified by ABC was not to the reactor itself but was open to allow students access to an all-night computer lab in the same building.

If someone were to try to enter the room where the reactor is, they would know, he said.

The report also questioned whether the reactor, located in the middle of campus and visible from a ground-level window, had enough security measures in place.

Allvin said the ability for the interns to see directly into the reactor room by looking through a window shows how minor the threat of the reactor is.

"If anything, it's a testament to how benign the equipment is. It's not a huge nuclear power plant. It's a very small piece of equipment with very benign purposes," Allvin said.

Security has always taken into account the reactor's proximity to public roads and classrooms, Allvin said.

"It's been that way since the 1950s," Allvin said. "Just because ABC News sent interns out doesn't mean we suddenly have a problem."

President Peter Likins characterized the threat to the public as "a fantasy" hyped by ABC.

The TRIGA research reactor was designed by Edward Teller, who has been called the father of the hydrogen bomb, to be a fundamentally safe and an inherently stable reactor, Likins said.

The reactor itself was designed to run at room temperature and is incapable of exploding, Likins said.

Likins said the TRIGA reactor is different than power-generating nuclear reactors like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, which both experienced serious accidents that released radioactive material to the surrounding communities.

"Our reactor can't experience a runaway reaction like that," Likins said.

The concerns about using radioactive material as a dirty bomb, Likins said, were also exaggerated by ABC.

Likins said the amount of the radioactive material present in the reactor is low level, on par with radiation present in cancer wards in some hospitals.

"It's really nothing to be alarmed by," Likins said.

Allvin also downplayed the threat of a dirty bomb.

"If someone were to try to damage the building to get to the material, the biggest problem you'd have on your hands is the damaged building. It's a very small amount that is very well controlled." Allvin said.

ABC conducted a four-month investigation of nuclear research reactors operating on 25 college campuses across the country by sending interns to gauge their security.

The investigation, which aired last night on "Primetime Live," found several campus reactors with unmanned guard booths, unlocked doors and a guard who appeared to be asleep. Several also received guided tours of the reactor facilities.

ABC is reporting the NRC will be investigating security on five of the campuses mentioned in the report. It is unknown whether this investigation will include the UA.

Allvin said he was not aware of any investigations.

"Security was not breached. ABC News is scaring the hell out of the American public and using us to do it," Allvin said.