UCLA Reactor Dispute Runs Out of Fuel

Times Staff Writer

Five years of controversy over the safety of UCLA's nuclear reactor has ended quietly with the announcement that all nuclear fuel has been removed from campus.

According to Dean George L. Turin of the UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science, the reactor's fuel elements containing 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds) of enriched uranium were transported, in four separate truck shipments, to the Department of Energy's processing facility Idaho Falls between Nov. 26 and Dec. 16.

Slightly more than three pounds (1.39 kilograms) of fresh uranium that had never been used inside the reactor were shipped off early last July.

The removal was applauded by Steven Aftergood, executive director of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an environmental research organization that has contended that the reactor endangered the public health and safety.

Also voicing his approval was Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles), who said, "I commend UCLA for placing safety above science and for their consideration for students, faculty and the thousands of people I represent, who live in the area adjacent to UCLA."

UCLA officials, however, maintain that the research reactor, the UCLA Argonaut, did not pose a danger to the community. It was started up in 1960 and before its shutdown, operated at a maximum power of 100 kilowatts. (It takes about one kilowatt to operate a hair dryer, according to UCLA spokesman Tom Tugend.) The reactor is located in Boelter Hall.

Tugend said that during 24 years of safe operation, the reactor was used in the instruction of several thousand engineering students and for research in engineering, the physical sciences and medicine.

The decision to remove the fuel, announced by UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young last June 14, was reached "solely as a result of our examination of the changed circumstances affecting the academic benefits and escalating costs of continued operation of the reactor facility."

He noted that class enrollments and research projects in UCLA's academic programs using the reactor have declined recently. University and industry interests, he said, have shifted from fission to the fields of plasma physics/fusion engineering and reactor safety.

"The reactor was shut down for maintenance last February," Tugend said, "then they had to decide whether to fix it before or after the Olympics. On June 14, they said, let's just get rid of the whole thing."

Bridge the Gap attempted to force the university to remove the fuel before the Olympics, contending that it was a "likely target" for terrorists and saboteurs and that removing the fuel before the start of the Games would eliminate the threat of sabotage or theft.

At that time, Walter F. Wegst, director of safety research and occupational safety at UCLA, said the timetable was impossible to meet.

Before the fuel could be moved, a lead container weighing between 12 and 17 tons had to be found to house the fuel for shipment, and special tools had to be acquired to transfer the fuel into the container. Permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation to transport the fuel was also needed.

As an alternative to removing the fuel before the Olympics, UCLA constructed concrete barriers in front of the reactor and posted 24-hour guards.

"All along our people said the thing couldn't be blown up, that there couldn't be any Three-Mile Island incident," Tugend said. "But by that time there had been so much publicity about the reactor, talk of swarms of terrorists, (that) our people got nervous. I was concerned that some deranged mind, after constantly reading stories, would say, 'This is a good way to get my name in the paper.' "

'Low-Key' Removal

Wegst said the fuel was removed "in a low-key fashion. We didn't want to publish when we were going to do it. The trucks left either very early in the morning or in the middle of the night, generally as much for the truck drivers' convenience (as for any other reason). We asked for and paid for two drivers, so they could drive non-stop from Westwood to Idaho Falls."

Wegst said that UCLA informed the highway patrols in Utah and Idaho when the fuel would be passing through.

"They weren't interested," Wegst said. "That's an indication of whether it is a real hazard. There are greater hazards, explosives, gasoline. The imagined hazards of the nuclear folks are just that--imagined."

The reactor staff has begun dismantling the reactor, including removing the control blades and drive motors and draining the water moderator. The dismantling will conclude with the removal of the rest of the reactor's internal structure.

University officials must also weigh the cost and most effective method of securing or removing the massive concrete, graphite and lead shielding surrounding the reactor.

Tugend said that during the next few weeks, "we are planning to do a series of experiments and measurements to check radioactivity levels within the reactor core. We hope by the end of the winter quarter, another month or so, we will know what it will take to do the rest of the dismantling."

Bridge the Gap's Aftergood said, "We have devoted five years to the study of the reactor. We want it to be properly terminated. We are not insisting on a complete (immediate) dismantlement process."

Aftergood said his group will ask UCLA to withdraw its license application to run the reactor.

"We applied for license renewal about five years ago," Wegst said. "This was a routine renewal process. The Committee to Bridge the Gap filed documents to be admitted a intervenor.

"We went into five years of pre-hearings, hearings, discovery, and unproven accusations. The new dean (Turin) evaluated the need for the reactor and the faculty came to the conclusion that it was no longer used and not necessary.

"We are no longer interested in renewing the reactor, but we have to have some kind of license to possess what we have right now. Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not really sure how to handle the situation."

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