Concerns Raised Over UCI’s Nuclear Reactor

John Graham, a professor in the Graduate School of Management and the Democratic congressional candidate for the 48th district, has voiced his concerns about the nuclear reactor at UCI saying that it should be shut down because of its susceptibility to terrorist attacks. However, university administrators believe the nuclear reactor is safe and that Graham’s claims are unsubstantiated.
The reactor has been housed beneath Rowland Hall for 35 years without controversy. It is immersed within a concrete-walled pool filled with water 25 feet deep and is still used for research today.
Professor of chemistry George Miller has been the reactor’s supervisor for many years and says that there is little to worry about regarding the safety of the reactor.
‘The nuclear reactor’s vulnerability for a terrorist attack has been assessed and found not to be at a high risk,’ Miller said.
Miller also claims that measures have been taken to guarantee this safety.
‘If terrorists try to reach the reactor, we have systems that will tell us very quickly of an invasion and alert law enforcement who will be here,’ Miller said. ‘Secondly, we think it is difficult to do enough damage to this reactor that would actually harm the public.’
Sensors have been installed in the room to detect intruders and constant video surveillance records movement in and around the reactor.
Miller stated that if terrorists were to bomb the reactor, the water would absorb the harmful radioactivity that would be emitted. Furthermore, a bombing would collapse the top of the building, which would collapse on top of the reactor and protect it.
UCI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that regulates the civilian use of nuclear material, share Miller’s stance on the reactor’s safety.
Scott Burnell, spokesperson for the NRC, reports that they communicate with UCI on a regular basis and have yearly visits to ensure its safety.
‘Since Sept. 11, 2001, the NRC required additional steps for reactors around the country,’ Burnell said.
However, it was the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 that prompted Graham to question the safety of the university’s nuclear reactor. At the press conference on Sept. 27, Graham mentioned that UCI is on the attorney general’s terrorist target list.
Graham admitted that he may have had other reasons for bringing up the reactor as a terrorist threat.
‘I can’t deny that part of my motivation is political,’ Graham said.
However, he said that it was not the only driving force behind making his concerns public.
‘The other part of my motivation is that I live on the campus and my house is not insured for nuclear contamination … I also care about the people on campus and the people around the country,’ Graham said.
He says that as a challenger, it is his responsibility to ensure that incumbent representative Christopher Cox is performing his duties and making sure the district is safe.
Graham said that he detonated bombs while serving in the Navy and that his knowledge of bomb tactics allows him to think up of methods that terrorists might use to bomb the reactor.
According to Graham, the security of the reactor is very weak and there is ample possibility for terrorists to attack before law enforcement can arrive. During test runs, the police were able to arrive at the reactor within two minutes, but Graham says that police cannot apprehend terrorists without gas masks.
‘The terrorists would mace the hallways and law enforcement would not be able to enter,’ Graham said.
Dan Hersh from Bridge the Gap, a nuclear power industry watchdog organization, is Graham’s scientific advisor on the nature of nuclear reactors. Contrary to Miller’s claims, Hersh explains that an explosion would blow the water out of the pool and spread radioactive materials.
‘Because the reactor is in an open pool, [an explosion would make] the water shoot out the top,’ Hersh said.
In a letter responding to Graham’s concerns, Cox said, ‘I am instructing the staff of the House Committee on Homeland Security … to work with [Graham] and UCI officials to conduct a more thorough review of the security procedures.’
Cox has worked on the security of other nuclear reactors in California and said in the letter that he looks forward to working with Graham on the safety of UCI’s nuclear reactor.
‘The reactor has operated safely and without incident for 35 years,’ said Chancellor Ralph Cicerone in an e-mail to the university in response to Graham’s claims about safety issues at the reactor.
However, Graham suggested that Cicerone should hold a public forum to begin a discussion of issues surrounding the nuclear reactor.