March 25, 2003

Ward Reactor Fuel to Be Removed

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In a letter sent to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham on Feb. 28, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) requested that the fuel from Cornell’s Teaching, Research, Isotope, General Atomics (TRIGA) reactor at the Ward Center for Nuclear Sciences be removed from Ithaca “as quickly as possible.”

“I respectfully request that you take whatever steps may be necessary to ensure that the TRIGA reactor fuel is removed from Cornell University as quickly as possible. It is my belief that the removal of this fuel will alleviate a substantial burden on Cornell University, and allow such radioactive materials to be more securely stored,” Schumer wrote in the letter.

According to Robert Richardson, vice provost for research, “The window [for the fuel to be removed] is to be sometime between this spring and next fall.”

The exact time of removal is not a matter of public record, he added.

The Ward Reactor was closed on June 30, 2002, after 40 years of operation. The controversial decision to close the reactor resulted in opposition both on campus and throughout the nation, warranting the criticism of the National Association of Cancer Patients and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), among others.

The Department of Energy plans to transport the fuel from the closed reactor to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory facility in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Schumer also expressed concerns about possible security issues that could result from having the radioactive material remain in Ithaca.

“I am concerned that the demands of meeting the technical and security requirements for hosting such highly radioactive material are placing an extreme burden on Cornell University, and feel that the decontamination and decommissioning of the facility should occur as quickly as possible,” he wrote.

Richardson agrees with these views.

“As time goes on, there are more and more requirements related to anti-terrorism and the protection of [the radioactive material] that could end up being quite expensive eventually,” he said. “While it’s here we have to be very careful with it.”

Schumer also believes that protecting the fuel should not be the University’s job.

“Cornell University’s mission is to educate students and conduct world-class research — not to play security guard for dangerous, highly radioactive materials. In a post-9/11 world, it is essential that these inherently dangerous materials be guarded by those with the expertise and resources to do so,” he said in a press release.

Schumer’s letter was the result of a concerted effort by both Cornell and the senator’s office.

“One of the people from our government relations office was discussing issues for the campus with [Schumer’s] office, and one of them was that we would like the fuel removed in a timely manner,” Richardson said. “So they sent a letter attempting to ensure the schedule isn’t delayed.”

Some believe, however, that the issues surrounding the reactor go beyond safety concerns.

“It seems to me that nuclear waste isn’t the only dangerous material in the University,” said Tommy Tanabe ’05. “Other toxic materials being used for research are just as dangerous. It’s easy to get rid of any potentially dangerous material, but then you limit research. You have to look at where you place the line between what’s needed and what’s too dangerous.”

Archived article by David Hillis