Closing the UCLA Nuclear Reactor
A mile from CBG’s office at the time, virtually unknown to the public, was a nuclear reactor, in the basement of Boelter Hall at UCLA. D’On Voelzke quickly discovered that for years the reactor had been leaking a radioactive gas, argon-14, into the environment. Because the operators of the reactor had miscalibrated the radiation monitor, they were giving out 300 times more radioactivity than they had thought, resulting in concentrations 50 times the regulatory limit. The most radioactive place on campus, it turned out, was in the Math Sciences Building next door, because the reactor exhaust stack was directly upwind of the main air inlet for that classroom building.
It got worse. We soon discovered that some years after the reactor was originally built, its operators decided to quadruple the amount of its “excess reactivity,” a measure of whether the reactor can blow up in a kind of small nuclear explosion called a “power excursion.” In such an accident, if you pull the control rods out too far and too fast, the power increases exponentially in a fraction of a second, the fuel melts or even vaporizes, and the water coolant flashes to steam and the reactor blows apart in a steam explosion. A similar reactor, the SL-1, had been destroyed in such a power excursion at a remote Idaho testing site in 1961 when a worker accidentally withdrew a control rod too far; the reactor blew up, killing the workers and spreading radioactivity into the surrounding desert.
Because of the far greater consequences were such an event to occur in the midst of a campus of tens of thousands of students, staff, and faculty, surrounded by the densely populated Westwood community, the UCLA reactor was initially designed with a stringent excess reactivity limit. But some years later, the reactor was “souped up,” increasing the excess reactivity to a level that the reactor’s own hazards analysis indicated could result in a power excursion. Because of errors made in the analysis, the risk was even greater. Should a mistake be made (not out of the question for a reactor operated by students), doses as large or larger than those possible from a large reactor accident were possible. That was because, unlike big power reactors, this one had no containment structure to keep radioactivity from being released and no exclusion zone or buffer area to dilute radioactivity before it reached the public.
To top it off, unlike U.S. power reactors which use fuel of about 4% enrichment, which cannot be used directly for a nuclear bomb, the UCLA reactor used 93% enriched uranium- -weapons-grade. In addition to several bombs’ worth in the reactor core, they stored enough fresh fuel for five nuclear bombs in a filing cabinet! The security was not much better than for the campus bookstore. Yet if someone stole that extraordinarily dangerous material, it could be used to make atomic explosives.
We intervened in the UCLA license renewal proceeding before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first contested relicensing case in the country. It was an extraordinary, dramatic five-year battle, a tiny nonprofit against the University of California. Former Los Alamos weapons designer Ted Taylor, the world’s pre-eminent expert on the nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism risks if someone were to steal the UCLA reactor’s bomb-grade uranium, was an expert witness for us. So was Herbert Scoville, the former Deputy Director of the CIA for science and technology and former official of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Jim Warf, former head of the inorganic chemistry section of the Manhattan Project, testified about the risks of a fire in the reactor’s graphite. Michio Kaku, a now-famous physicist from City College of New York, testified about the risks of a power excursion, as did the reactor physicist Boyd Norton, who had “blown up” one of the SPERT reactors in an excess reactivity test at the National Reactor Testing Site in Idaho, the results of which UCLA had misrepresented in its safety analysis. Roland Finston, head of radiation safety at Stanford, testified for us against the head of radiation safety at UCLA over the radiation releases from the reactor. Attorneys Dorothy Thompson and Dean Hansell and a team of remarkable students from the UCLA Environmental Law Society—among them Michael Schwartz, John Bay, Allen Blumenthal, and Roger Kohn (who also had a Ph.D. in physics)—helped defeat the attorneys for the Regents of the University of California.
The case ended dramatically. The 1984 Olympics were to be held in part at UCLA, a few hundred yards from the reactor; national media had reported that the UCLA reactor would be a prime target for terrorists. Rather than responding to our evidence of gross weaknesses in security for the reactor, UCLA and the NRC staff instead contended UCLA was not required to have a security plan against either theft of the bomb grade uranium or against radiological sabotage of the reactor and was never inspected by the NRC for security. When we made sure that the administrative law judges were able to review the inspection reports and security plan and could see that those statements were untrue, the angered judges issued an order suspending the proceeding and brought the lawyers for UCLA and the NRC staff up on charges of misconduct.
In the meantime, the reactor suffered an accident during a seismic simulation, pinning the control blades so they couldn’t be moved. Just before the Olympics were to begin, UCLA announced it was withdrawing its license renewal application and would permanently close the facility. We had won.
After decommissioning, Chuck Ashbaugh, the reactor operator who had become a friend despite our efforts to close his reactor, dropped by the CBG office with boxloads of components from the dismantled reactor, including the control panels with the key still in it, giving them to us as trophies, saying “You’ve won them fair and square.”
The victory went far beyond this one reactor. Our revelations about weapons grade uranium at research reactors like UCLA’s were a catalyst for a remarkable policy change nationally and internationally. We helped push the NRC to adopt regulations generally banning the use of bomb grade uranium in research reactors nationally and such exports to research reactors abroad. Highly enriched uranium that could, if stolen or diverted, be used to make nuclear bombs, has been removed from about 100 research reactors here and abroad as part of that initiative, eliminating enough material for hundreds of atomic explosives.