October 19, 2001

Students to Trustees: Preserve Ward Lab

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Students held a protest in front of Day Hall yesterday, another movement in a long line of efforts to save the Ward Center for Nuclear Studies, which was formally shut down by the University last summer. The lab is one of a handful of nuclear research facilities available on college campuses across the country.

In a direct appeal to the Board of Trustees — on campus this weekend for its annual meetings — the group of students displayed signs alleging that Cornell trustees have erred in assessing the Ward lab’s value to the campus.

“The trustees gave [President] Hunter [R.] Rawlings [III] permission to shut down the lab. All that would take is for them to decide that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all, and not shut it down,” said Danielle Hauck ’02.

Rawlings and Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin approved the decision to decommission the facility in May. The administration cited, in its recommendation, “a serious underutilization of [the] facility,” insubstantial academic and research activities, and the remote “chance of [government] funds actually becoming available [to Cornell].”

“We can no longer warrant spending Department of Energy and Cornell funds to subsidize the TRIGA reactor,” Robert Richardson, vice provost for research wrote at the time of the decision to close the reactor.

After nearly a year’s struggle to keep the lab open, including a supportive recommendation by the Faculty Senate, more than 2,000 student signatures on petitions and numerous protests, the University has remained by its decision.

Closing the Ward Lab may affect far reaches of research at Cornell. The move would jeopardize many graduate students’ research projects, and undergraduate courses could be limited by the closing.

“The nuclear science and engineering courses would be canceled. There aren’t a whole lot of those any more, but the faculty and grad students who work directly with the reactor will obviously be without a place to work,” said Erin Brewster ’04, a student researcher at Ward.

“There are a lot of classes across several departments that do use the reactor, including archaeology, chemistry, and geology which have very high enrollment. This was presented to the Faculty Senate and it was one of the reasons that they recommended it stay open,” Brewster said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Energy reportedly offered to support any costs incurred by maintaining the reactor. Still, the decision to shut down was reached unanimously during the summer by the Board of Trustees upon the recommendation of the Local Advisory Committee to decommission to reactor.

A general complaint faced by nuclear reactors is that they are environmentally unsafe and therefore a hazard to the community. However, “[Ward is] 6,000 times smaller than a power plant reactor so it has minimal environmental impact,” Brewster said.

One of the demands posed by the students at the protest yesterday was the ability to simply refuel the reactor, allowing it to function until closing. At the moment the reactor is below functioning capacity that makes research impossible.

“I work in the Dendrochronology Lab in the basement of Goldwin Smith, and our lab does a fair amount of research at the reactor, and if they shut down the reactor we won’t be able to finish our projects,” said Jennifer Clay Chiment ’97.

Dendrochronology, an archaeological application involving tree ring dating, uses the Ward lab to analyze trace elements present in wood to obtain ancient climate data.

“They’ve [the administration] told us to move our projects to reactors at other universities, but because of individual differences between the reactors we’d have to start the research back at the beginning. So we would lose the last four or five years worth of research, money, time and effort,” Chiment said.

Hauck also argued that the long-term necessity for a reactor may be greater than what the University has assessed.

“It is important that we have the ability to train American engineers to run our reactors especially under the current circumstances. We’re going to need nuclear energy. I’m not really big on nuclear power, but I think that under the circumstances we want to become less dependent on oil and less dependent on oil producing countries,” Hauck said.

Students and staff at the protest agreed that given the past history of interactions with the administration, a protest may not have the desired impact. However, protesters still showed their support for the reactor by handing out information and new petitions.

“I don’t know that a protest is going to change the mind of the administration, but I also don’t think that we should just walk on by. You have to do something,” said Chiment.

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata