December 3, 2003

Reactor's Nuclear Fuel Removed

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University officials announced yesterday that spent nuclear fuel from Cornell’s Teaching, Research, Isotope, General Atomics (TRIGA) reactor at the Ward Center for Nuclear Sciences had been removed two weeks ago. The removal of the materials is one of the phases in the lab’s decommissioning process following the shut down of the reactor on June 30, 2002.

After 40 years of operation, the decision last year to deconstruct the lab created much debate and criticism among groups including the National Association of Cancer Patients and individuals such as Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

Last February, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, requesting that the materials be removed from Ithaca. At the time, Schumer expressed concern about a potential security threat with the radioactive material.

“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 last year.

The nuclear fuel was removed during the week of Nov. 10, according to Linda Grace-Kobas, interim vice president for University communications and media relations. Grace-Kobas said that even though the material removal was supposed to occur several months ago, delays were caused by difficulties in scheduling with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government institutions.

“We were glad … to have the fuel removed by the beginning of the year,” Grace-Kobas said. “But we were not in control of the [removal] schedule.”

She added that there was a possibility the fuel might not have been taken away until next year, but the U.S. Department of Energy actually moved up the Ward removal schedule to an earlier date.

Due to federal regulations, University officials were not allowed to disclose information about the removal until 10 days after its Nov. 20 arrival at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory facility in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 and Ithaca Police Chief Victor Loo were informed about the procedure before it occurred.

Although many were concerned about the possible hazard created by the presence of the fuel rods, Grace-Kobas said that the University — which did not feel the material created a security concern — is pleased the materials are off-campus because they can now continue to dismantle the reactor.

“We’ve always … operated the facility with due diligence and compliance in all safety regulations,” Grace-Kobas said. “We did not feel like [the rods] were a health hazard on campus. We can [now] move forward with the decommissioning process.”

The reactor is slated to undergo further decommissioning over the course of the next several months. This process will include the dismantling of the TRIGA reactor, said Charles Fay, vice provost for research administration, in a University press release.

Fay said the decommissioning is projected to be completed by the end of next year, although plans are not finalized concerning how the space will be used once the process is completed.

“That’s still under discussion by the administration,” Grace-Kobas said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao