MIT assures community of research reactor safety

In a program scheduled to air tonight (Oct. 13), ABC News contends that nuclear reactor facilities operated by U.S. universities for educational and research purposes pose a security risk to their communities. For their research, ABC News sent journalism student interns on tours of 25 university research reactors last summer. The students did not identify themselves as working for ABC or state the intent of their visits.

MIT’s research reactor lab, which has operated safely for 47 years, offers tours for educational purposes to individuals by appointment. Two of ABC’s college interns requested a tour of the MIT lab in June, which was granted after MIT had learned through its comprehensive security checks that the interns were acting as undercover journalists for ABC News, but posed no security threat.

“MIT’s nuclear reactor is safe and secure,” said Professor Alice Gast, associate provost and vice president for research at MIT. “We have a responsibility to the people of Cambridge and to the MIT community, and we would not operate the reactor if we believed that it posed a threat to their well-being.”

Visitors to the research reactor enter through the reactor’s administrative offices, which are located in a building next to the reactor building. They are not allowed to bring backpacks or bags into the reactor building, but must leave them in the administrative offices. Likewise, cameras and recording instruments are not allowed in the reactor building. Full background checks are completed before a visitor is permitted into the facility.

“We offer tours to educate a wide spectrum of visitors about the research performed at our reactor laboratory and the importance and safety of nuclear power,” said Professor David Moncton of MIT, a physicist who is director of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. “MIT’s reactor operates at power levels 1/600th the level of a typical nuclear power plant in the U.S. With its very robust concrete and steel containment building it does not pose a significant security risk. In fact, research conducted here has improved the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, and improving safety of the MIT reactor is constantly a high priority. We also conduct research for treatments of cancer and in nuclear medicine.”

A news article on the ABC web site states concerns at MIT were (1) that the interns “were able to obtain a sensitive reactor operating schedule and floor plans from Internet sites and the MIT library,” and (2) “that a vehicle could stop, unchallenged, on a dirt road within 50 feet of the reactor building. An ABC News producer went unchallenged as he drove down the road in a large rental truck and stopped next to the 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.

MIT believed 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. MIT’s Research Reactor Laboratory removed its floor plans from the lab’s web site as part of increased security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those plans were very rudimentary and did not contain sensitive information about the lab.

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.

The MIT reactor is a teaching and research facility that has been used by hundreds of researchers to study nuclear power and new treatments for cancer treatments, among other things.

From MIT

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