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September 08, 2005 - Image 9

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2005-09-08

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The Michigan Daily - Thursday, September 8, 2005 - 9A

Research reactor causes
concern among regulators

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - For Uni-
versity of Missouri tailgaters, the name
of the new parking lot down the hill
from Memorial Stadium is little more
than a curiosity: Reactor Field, a nod to
the nearby nuclear research reactor.
The nation's largest university-based
reactor keeps an intentionally low local
profile, despite its cutting-edge research
into promising cancer drugs.
But among regulators and nuclear
energy watchdogs, it has a troubling
distinction: The reactor is one of only
two university reactors still unable to
convert highly enriched uranium - an
ingredient crucial to building nuclear
weapons - to a safer fuel.
"These things have been used for
education for so long, the operators
don't seem to accept they can be used
for nuclear weapons," said George
Bunn, a professor at Stanford Univer-
sity's Center for International Security
and Cooperation who helped negotiate
the 1968 global Nuclear Nonprolifera-
tion Treaty.
As little as 25 kilograms (about 55
pounds) of highly enriched uranium is
needed to build a nuclear bomb on the
scale of the one dropped on Hiroshima
60 years ago. Smaller bombs could use
as little as 12 kilograms, experts say.
The Missouri reactor's federal license
limits to five kilograms the amount of
unirradiated, or "fresh" highly enriched
The nation's other university reactor

with fresh HEU is at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. MIT officials
declined to disclose the amount stored
there, though previously published
reports suggest at least nine kilograms
are in the reactor at any given time.
The distinction between irradiated
and unirradiated fuel is significant.
Once uranium-based fuel is doused with
radiation, the number of isotopes rap-
idly increases, making the fuel highly
radioactive and unsuitable as a weapon.
Research reactors sprouted worldwide
in the wake of President Eisenhower's
"Atoms for Peace" program in 1953,
including at dozens of American colleg-
es. But by 1978, Cold War tensions and
security concerns prompted a Depart-
ment of Energy initiative to convert
the fuel at research reactors to the low-
enriched alternative more commonly
found at commercial power reactors.
"Domestic and international security
concerns dictate very strongly that we
halt the use of research reactor fuels
which contain highly enriched uranium
because of its nuclear explosive proper-
ties," then-Nuclear Regulatory Com-
missioner Victor Gilinsky wrote to the
MIT reactor director on Oct. 7, 1983.
"Universities, especially, should make
every effort to shift away from nuclear
explosive fuels."
At least 40 research reactors world-
wide have already been converted,
including those at the University of
Michigan, Ohio State University and

the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The University of Florida and Texas
A&M are scheduled to convert their
reactors next year, and more federal
money is budgeted to speed the work at
the University of Wisconsin, Washing-
ton, Purdue and Oregon State.
The emphasis on conversion of Amer-
ican research reactors only increased
after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when
the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Com-
mission ordered enhanced security at
nuclear sites in the wake of concerns
that terrorists would target such power
That leaves Missouri and MIT among
the 31 research and test reactors world-
wide that cannot switch from highly
enriched uranium because of technical
limitations, primarily because of small-
er reactor core sizes.
The Department of Energy has set
a target date of 2014 to convert the
remaining reactors.
At MIT, officials have set aside
$50,000 to expedite the conversion
process, said reactor director John Ber-
"If that fuel does get through its test
phase, we're in a position to move rap-
idly at that point," he said. "There's no
reason not to convert."
At Missouri, though, officials hope
to upgrade the 10-megawatt reactor to
20 megawatts - an increase contingent
on continued use of highly enriched


. effects
cane Katrina will have a greater eco-
nomic impact than previous killer
storms, though the energy price spikes,
slower growth and job losses will not
be enough to push the country into a
That's the view of the Congressional
Budget Office, which provided the gov-
ernment's first assessment Qf the eco-
nomic impact from the country's worst
natural disaster yesterday.
The CBO predicted the aftermath
of Katrina would see job losses of
- 400,000 in coming months, a reduc-
tion in growth of as much as a full per-
centage point in the second half of this
year and that September gas prices will
average about 40 percent higher than
before the storm.
These impacts were described as
"significant but not overwhelming."
Still, the CBO cautioned that the econ-
omy could suffer a more serious blow
if energy supply disruptions along the
Gulf Coast last longer than expected.
"Last week, it appeared that larger
economic disruptions might occur,
but despite continued uncertainty,
progress in opening refineries and
restarting pipelines now makes those
larger impacts less likely," CBO Direc-
tor Douglas Holtz-Eakin wrote in a
letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill
Frist (R-Tenn.) and other congressional
The CBO gave a ballpark estimate
that gasoline prices will peak in Sep-
tember at about 40 percent higher than
levels in effect in midsummer. That
peak could be near, given that the aver-
age retail price of regular unleaded
gasoline climbed by 46 cents last week
to $3.07 per gallon, 34 percent above
the July nationwide average.
The spurt in the cost of gasoline will
reduce overall economic growth by 0.4
percent in the current July-September
quarter and by 0.9 percent in the Octo-
ber-December period as consumers
cut back on spending in other areas by
around $38 billion at an annualized
rate, CBO estimated.
CBO said overall economic growth,
as measured by the gross domestic
product, could be reduced by between
0.5 percentage point and a full percent-
age point for the second half of this year
but this downshift in growth should be
temporary as long as gasoline prices
retreat to pre-Katrina levels.
Before the hurricane, private
economists were forecasting growth
in the second half would come in
between 3 percent and 4 percent fol-
lowing growth of 3.6 percent in the
first half of this year.
There have been some promising
signs on the energy front in recent days
with crude oil prices dropping as more
Gulf Coast production resumes. The
Energy Department said yesterday that
domestic oil production and refinery
output should return to pre-hurricane

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