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.