Nuclear Reactor A Major Olympic Security Concern

In recent months, nuclear reactors have become the focus of tightened security procedures and rising anxiety. Throw the Olympics into the picture, and concerns reach a whole new level.

And under these conditions, the U’s small nuclear reactor may have caused more than a few ulcers.

On Sept. 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission placed reactors around the country on the highest level of security, but noted in a press release no precedent exists for a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor.

The U’s reactor is used solely for research, not power generation. The reactor uses low-enriched uranium?a material that would not be very attractive to a terrorist, according to Marvin Mendonca, a USNRC senior project manager.

“My worry is that it is a big political target,” said Gerald Stringfellow, dean of the College of Engineering.

The U issued a statement saying it had received no information concerning either a general or a specific threat to any laboratory.

Faculty in the nuclear engineering program felt threatened by questions about security and the reactor in general and refused to answer any inquiries. They cited federal regulations which govern the release of information about nuclear reactor security.

A federal government assessment of the reactor facility was conducted last year. After looking at the physical security measures, the design of the reactor and its content, the assessment “determined the reactor does not pose a threat,” according the U’s statement.

Prior to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia Tech shut down its much larger reactor?an action which became permanent. The U’s reactor will be shut down temporarily for the Olympics, but the situation is much different, according to officials.

Security precautions being taken at the U are far and above what is necessary, according to a government official who participated in the assessment.

If radioactive material from the U’s reactor were made into a dirty bomb, the radioactivity would pose less of a threat than the explosive, according to the same official.

Despite the lack of precedent for a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility, the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced it had purchased a large quantity of potassium iodide?used as a treatment after exposure to radioactive iodine, one of the products of a nuclear reactor.

HHS acquired 1.6 million doses and plans to obtain more than 5 million more.

This move is in line with the government’s other efforts to improve preparation for a terrorist attack, such as the acquisition of large quantities of the small pox vaccine, according to HHS Spokesman Bill Pierce.

The events of Sept. 11 sparked these efforts, he said.

At the U’s nuclear reactor facility, the attacks affected students.

The NRC’s alert temporarily interrupted junior Jessica Moffitt’s lab work for her introductory nuclear engineering class.

However, she’s glad the security measures were put in place and will be heightened for the Olympics.

“My opinion is that the nuclear reactor is small and doesn’t have the kind of fuel used for weapons,” Moffitt said.

Even without the added security, she feels the reactor is well protected.

“There are backups for backups,” she said.

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