A Nuclear Reactor at Columbia University? by Michael Kennedy, Sr. Health Physicist

While most would shudder at the thought today, in the 1950’s and 60’s a nuclear reactor was considered an important item for a major research university to own. For example, The University of Missouri, North Carolina State University, the University of Chicago, University of California Irvine and others built reactors for research and training purposes during this era. Amid this growing trend, Columbia’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Program in 1960 applied for and obtained a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation which they used to purchase a TRIGA Mark II reactor. TRIGA reactors are typically a “pool” type, in which uranium fuel rods are lowered into a “swimming pool” and utilize the water in the pool as the neutron moderator, cooling agent, and radiation shield for the unit. These reactors were favored by academic research institutions because they are engineered to have a low risk of meltdown and do not require a containment building to shield the unit.

The University was approved to start construction in 1963 by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the project began the following year. In 1968 the University applied for its license from the AEC to operate the unit. The student protest movement was active on campus at that time, however, and in view of the unrest related to the construction of a Columbia gymnasium at Morningside Park and the general dissent among the surrounding community toward the presence of a nuclear reactor on campus, the AEC ultimately denied Columbia’s request to operate the reactor.

The University re-applied in 1969 and a hearing was held before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB); the Board again denied the application. The ASLB was concerned that the site did not meet the criteria expected of a research reactor and there were conflicting reports as to how much radioactive material could be released in the event of an accident. The accidental release scenario was evaluated a second time, and in 1971 the ASLB reversed course and recommended issuing a license to the University to begin operation of the reactor.  When the local community became aware, a lawsuit was filed in federal court appealing the decision of the ASLB. The Appeals court denied review and the case was taken up by the United States Supreme Court in 1974. The Supreme Court also sided with Columbia ruling that the reactor could move forward.

Finally, however, after six years of regulatory and legal battles the Nuclear Science and Engineering Program re-evaluated its needs and decided not to complete the installation.  Eventually, the Program was incorporated within the Department of Applied Physics and Mathematics, and all that remains of the never-fueled reactor is a concrete shell and a few rooms built to support its operation.  

SAFE Disposal by Chris Pettinato, Executive Director

Columbia University and Teachers College have again partnered with the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to host a NYC SAFE Disposal Event. The upcoming event, scheduled for Sunday June 28, 2015 on 120th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, is for NYC residents to properly dispose of household chemicals, automotive chemicals, batteries, medications, sharps/syringes, mercury thermometers, and used electronics. The previous Columbia-hosted SAFE Disposal event on April 28, 2013 saw 1,200 residents bring more than 60,000 pounds of hazardous household products for proper disposal.
DSNY mailed a flier on May 27th to over 386,000 Manhattan households within local community boards 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 announcing the event. DSNY is also planning social media initiatives via Twitter (@NYCRecycles) and Facebook (“NYC Recycles”) to promote the event. Visit on.nyc.gov/safeevents for more information on SAFE Disposal Events throughout the 5 Boroughs.

sweat Editorial Staff: Kathleen Crowley, Chris Pettinato, Chris Pitoscia
Graphics, Design, Lay-out: Aderemi Dosunmu
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