March 8, 2002

C.U.'s Decision To Close Ward Reactor Stands

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With the proposed June 30 closing date of the Ward Reactor looming on the horizon, the National Association of Cancer Patients (NACP) yesterday intensified pressure on University officials to reverse their resolution to shut down the reactor. They called for the University to “consider the human lives that will be affected” by their decision.

In an open letter addressed to President Hunter R. Rawlings III, Nicki Hobson, executive director of the NACP, affirmed the reactor’s capacity to produce life-saving medical isotopes.

“On behalf of the millions of Americans currently battling cancer and those who will be diagnosed in the future, I am writing to urge you to keep the Cornell research reactor operating,” Hobson said.

Medical isotopes are utilized to treat and diagnose fatal cancers such as blood cancer, breast cancer, and bone cancer.

“It is a national resource that is capable of producing many medical isotopes that are essential to the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer,” she added.

Hobson’s request is the latest in a series of objections to the controversial decision to shut down the TRIGA nuclear fission reactor, which was approved unanimously by the Board of Trustees last summer.

The Faculty Senate rejected the plan to decommission in full nearly a year ago, and undergraduates opposed the decision, staging a rally in front of Day Hall in October.

The Ward Center, which is located on the Engineering Quad, has housed the fission reactor for the last 40 years. Cornell’s reactor is one of only 26 operating university research reactors in the country. It is currently utilized to conduct research in areas including geological sciences, dendochronology, theoretical and applied mechanics.

University officials remained adamant that the decision to close the Ward Center for Nuclear Studies and suspend reactor operation will not be reviewed.

Robert Richardson, vice provost of research, said yesterday that the matter was “closed” and that decommissioning would commence according to schedule. Richardson reiterated that space considerations and the high cost of maintaining the lab are the key issues that prompted the decision to decommission.

“The space available at the University is a major problem,” Richardson said. “The maintenance of the lab is expensive and the space is very valuable.”

Currently, the plans for future of the Ward site remain unclear.

In December, the University submitted a proposal to the Army Research Office to house the Institute for Solider Nanotechnologies, which was slated to occupy the area now utilized by the Ward Center. Last month, the proposal, which would have brought the University $50 million in federal grants, was rejected.

In an interview with the Sun, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin said that the fate of the area remains undecided.

“A lot will depend on what ideas the faculty develop and on what plans the new Dean of Engineering has for the college,” Martin said.

Representatives from the NACP suggested that the cost of maintaining the reactor could easily be defrayed by the lucrative sale of medical isotopes to prospective patients. Hobson indicated in her letter to Rawlings that the marketing of these isotopes would “significantly affect the economics of operating the reactor.”

“The sale of isotopes could eventually pay for the price of the reactor,” said Marlene Oliver, the Northwest chair of the NACP, who has been closely monitoring the situation at the Ward Center over the last few months.

Oliver, who is also a member of the National Cancer Institute, traveled to Washington, D.C. last month in an effort to lobby members of Congress, members of the current administration and several prominent labor leaders to challenge the University’s ruling. Oliver’s trip was funded by labor groups “who were tired of seeing their colleagues and friends die of cancer,” she said.

“If the reactor is shut down, it is gone forever, and that would be a travesty for cancer patients,” Oliver said. “Cornell has the capacity to produce these isotopes in quantities that are sufficient to treat patients.”

According to Oliver, over 90 percent of the medical isotopes used in the United States are imported.

Isotopes are less costly to administer to patients than chemotherapy and radiation, and result in fewer deleterious side effects, she added.

Although it was originally unclear whether the Ward facility had the capacity and strength to produce medical isotopes, a simulation run by Pacific Northwest Labs earlier this year confirmed that the reactor was equipped to produce Leutetium-177, which is used to treat cancer, along with a variety of other isotopes, according to Deinert.

Deinert believes that it was vital for an outside group to perform the study in order to avoid issues of bias.

“We got back surprisingly good results,” he said. “It became clear at this time that our reactor could contribute to producing medical isotopes in large enough quantities and in high enough intensities to be of serious interest.”

Still, University administrators believe that it is not in Cornell’s best interest to maintain the reactor’s functionality. John Silcox, vice provost of physical sciences and engineering echoed Richardson’s concern for the academic agenda of the engineering college.

“If there is a need for isotopes, ultimately, someone else will step in and supply them,” he said. “Our concern is for our academic programs.”

Archived article by Jason Leff