Behind Door Number Three …

I had fully expected to hear the familiar "click" of metal door frame against bolt lock. It was the same sound I'd heard twice before when I'd tugged on other securely locked doors on the front of the Merrill Engineering Building, home to the University of Utah's research reactor. After all, it was 12:30 in the morning.

But this time, the only sounds when I pulled on the handle were my shallow, nervous breaths.

The third door, only a long hallway and a short walk away from the nuclear reactor room, was open.

The University of Utah, the third stop for our team, was our first opportunity to see an actual reactor up close. In the week before we were scheduled to arrive in Salt Lake City, I called the school and spoke with Dr. Melinda Krahenbuhl, director of the Center for Excellence in Nuclear Technology, Engineering and Research (CENTER).

By Googling "University of Utah," "tour" and "reactor," I had already found a page on the university's Nuclear Engineering Program Web site that welcomed prospective engineering graduate students to "Take a Tour of the Reactor" and listed a phone number to call. So I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to arrange a tour of the reactor facility. Sure enough, after giving my name and Michelle's, and saying that I had an "interest in nuclear engineering," we were booked for a tour the following Friday afternoon.

When we arrived on campus on the day of the tour, we knew from research found on the Web -- particularly the school's Web site and Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents -- that we'd find the reactor in the basement of the Merrill Engineering Building.

Once there, we were greeted by Krahenbuhl, the amiable and knowledgeable director of CENTER.

She led us into the CENTER office, where there is a door leading to a computer lab, then the control room and finally into the room that contains the reactor.

Inside the control room, Krahenbuhl gave Michelle a sheet, where she had to write both our names and addresses. We checked out the control panel, with its blinking lights, as well as a bookshelf filled with volumes of instruction manuals that anyone with aspirations to operate the reactor is required to peruse first.

Inside the reactor room, we walked over metal grating, and there, just beyond a set of railings, was a small, slightly dirty pool that acts as a buffer for the radiation from the reactor. The reactor core, a hexagonal-shaped piece of metal, was clearly visible at the bottom. I can only guess that the depth of the pool was anywhere from 25 to 30 feet because, according to Krahenbuhl, it's not information that she regularly shares with outsiders.

"I can't answer that anymore," she said when we asked about the pool's depth. "It's not secret, it's just discussing it is just really not what we're supposed to do anymore."

At the end of the tour, we left the same way we came in -- through the control room, an adjoining computer lab and finally back into the CENTER offices. We entered and exited through two locked doors, both of which Krahenbuhl opened with her key.

But when we returned to the building at 12:30 a.m., someone had been much less vigilant about door security. After trying the two main entrances at the front of the Merrill Engineering Building, where the reactor is located, we found an open door on the bottom level near a loading area with a roll-up door.

We filmed ourselves walking in and down the same hallway that we had been in earlier that day. When we reached the door to the CENTER's office (and through there, to the reactor), it was locked.

Traci Curry is a Carnegie Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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