The University of Florida in Gainesville, "Home of the Gators," is well-known for its celebrated football team and rabid fans. But in the midst of the palm trees, stucco dorms and lush athletic fields sits a nuclear research reactor housing weapons-grade uranium.
According to the school's Web site, tours of the reactor aren't given to just anyone off the street but to educators and school groups interested in nuclear science. Tamika and I aren't teachers or high school students. Yet, as ordinary citizens visiting the campus, we were able to walk into the Nuclear Science Building as if it were any other campus building, without an appointment or identification.
In fact, I didn't even need to give my name initially to gain access for a tour. Knowing the first name of the secretary to the reactor director was enough information for a student operator to let us into the reactor area -- no questions asked.
I didn't set out to learn her name, but it wasn't hard to do. I called the College of Engineering to see if, despite what the Web site said, there was any way we could take a tour of the reactor. I talked to a professor who informed me that we didn't need to be part of a student group to schedule a tour. According to him, tours of the reactor are readily given at "any time."
But he said that our tour would be dependent on the availability of the director who was conducting an experiment that morning. Then he gave me the first name of the director's secretary and transferred me.
I left the secretary a message but decided after a few hours to try showing up unannounced and see how far we'd get. First, we visited the nuclear engineering office where I asked for the secretary by name. Without asking for any identification, the receptionist told us, "She's in the reactor," and gave us directions. After we passed the reactor entrance and realized no one was there, we decided to wait. When I saw a student opening the door, I stopped him.
"Excuse me," I said as he was unlocking the reactor-area door. Using the secretary's name, I asked him where we could find her. He asked if we needed to see the reactor director, for whom she works.
"Well," I explained, "I called the College of Engineering earlier because we were on a campus tour and we wanted a tour of the reactor and he said that ..."
The student interrupted me.
"You're in the right place," he said. And he unlocked the first steel door to the reactor area.
"Tour of the reactor," he announced as he led us through the restricted area and unlocked a second door. As he led us closer to the actual reactor, he never questioned who we were or why we wanted to see the reactor -- he didn't even ask our names.
When we got to the door leading into the reactor and control room, the director came out. The reactor director had questions for us before we could enter. He wanted to know who we were and what we were doing there. But just by telling him I was working on a research project and that we were visiting the campus, he agreed to give us a tour, even though we showed up without an appointment and without a verifiable reason for being there.
To see the reactor and control room, we didn't need to show our driver's licenses or give our addresses. Ultimately, the only identification we needed was a student ID -- and the first name of a secretary.
Dana Hughes is a Carnegie Fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.