Ten students, working for ABC News, visited nuclear reactors on 25 college campuses and found many gaping security holes, prompting a federal investigation. Here's what the team found at University of Massachusetts.
Reactor Name: Lowell Radiation Laboratory
Fuel: Low-enriched uranium
Power Level: 1 MW
Began Operating: 1975
Location: At one end of the Pinanski Energy Center on the north end of campus, bordering a residential neighborhood. The building overlooks a highway and is about 300 yards from playing fields and tennis courts.
Security Obervations: The building is locked 24 hours a day. Tours are available, only by advance request. A fence and concrete barriers surround the facility. A security gate controls access to the parking lot.
What We Found: The Lowell website states that tours are available, but staff at the reactor did not respond to an e-mailed request for a tour. The Fellows were unable to gain entry to the building.
Still, much information is available about the reactor from public sources. The website has photographs of the reactor building's interior and a small labeled diagram of the reactor. The Fellows found an archived version of the website on the internet that included a virtual tour with photos. The reactor's 2004 Annual Report includes a very small diagram of the reactor controls. Microfilmed theses found in the campus library have diagrams of the reactor core with the fuel arrangement and detailed descriptions of the core's configuration including dimensions of fuel plates.
University Reaction: Lowell Police Department Superintendent Edward F. Davis III initially said reactor security was not a concern because he believed the reactor is no longer operational. He said that, to his knowledge, about six months ago the radioactive material was moved for security concerns to an undisclosed location in the "dead of night."
Not so, said Patti McCafferty, a spokesperson for University of Massachusetts Lowell. The reactor is still operational, she said, and uses low-enriched uranium. The reactor switched from highly-enriched uranium fuel in 2004. The spent HEU fuel was removed in August 2004, she said, but not in the dead of night.
McCafferty said that a security plan, procedures and monitoring have always been in place in at the reactor. Since 9/11, security controls have been heightened and reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the FBI, the Massachusetts State Police, the Lowell Police Department and the campus police department.
When informed that the University of Massachusetts Lowell told ABC News that the reactor is indeed still operational, Superintendent Davis was surprised. "I was under the impression it was shut down."
In a follow-up call with ABC News, Superintendent Lowell said that while he himself had been misinformed, his deputy and others in the police department were aware the reactor was still operating. "It still is radioactive material," he said, adding that the department still has "a special team to respond to critical infrastructure places," such as the reactor.
Additional Comment: The confusion regarding the status of the reactor is likely "a matter of how they liason with the local police department' said Ronald E. Timm, a veteran security consultant who has analyzed the vulnerability of the nation's nuclear laboratories for the Department of Energy. "As long as it's fueled, it's potentially a problem."