Thursday, June 27, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fears Over Reactor Dismantling -- UW's Neighbors Want To Be Informed

Tucked behind More Hall, past a swath of grass and trees, is the University of Washington's nuclear reactor.

For much of the three decades it has been on the bustling UW campus, it has operated in quiet anonymity.

The reactor weathered a small plutonium spill in 1972 and some subsequent protests, but for the most part, it's been out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the thousands of people who live nearby.

That may be changing soon.

The university decided to shut the reactor down in 1988. Now, some residents in neighborhoods that surround the UW see the upcoming dismantling of the reactor as a cause for concern. They charge that the university has been less than forthcoming with information about the decommissioning of the reactor.

Inserted into a report - by an advisory committee made up of representatives from the UW, the city and neighborhood - about the university's sweeping 10-year building plan are these lines: The committee "wants a more complete discussion regarding decommissioning the University's nuclear reactor. This is of great concern to the community. The community needs to be kept informed about any change in the facility's status."

The influential committee includes representatives from the Laurelhurst, Montlake, Ravenna-Bryant and University District community councils.

"Being the nonscientific type, maybe I am more concerned than I should be," said Doris Burns, a Montlake representative to the

advisory committee who pushed the group to address the nuclear reactor in its report.

But "considering what has happened to these little facilities in the country, and in Russia, it's better to be safe than sorry," she said.

UW officials say there has been no coverup. They say there has been little progress in dismantling the reactor because of a lack of money.

The university has asked the Legislature for $235,000 for the next two years to hire a consultant to write a decommissioning plan, and $2.48 million in the next biennium to take the reactor apart, said Don Renbarger, project manager.

The UW plan, which must meet federal guidelines, will guarantee safe dismantling and disposal of the reactor parts, the UW officials say.

"The university does not want anybody exposed to any health risk whatsoever," Renbarger said. "We've got more regulatory agencies looking over this one than you can imagine."

Among the steps that will be taken to ensure safety, said William (Pat) Miller, associate director for UW reactor operations:

-- Hazardous waste will be properly labeled and packaged to meet federal regulations and will be shipped to the waste site at Richland.

-- Trace amounts of plutonium, painted over after the 1972 spill, will be monitored carefully so none becomes airborne.

-- Five-foot-thick, 12-foot-high concrete reactor walls will come down; Miller estimated two-thirds of the concrete is radioactive. The radioactive material will be sent to an authorized disposal site that has not been identified, said Renbarger, the project manager.

The reactor, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been on the UW campus since 1961. Over 27 years, the 100-kilowatt reactor was operated the equivalent of 140 days; some days it ran at half power, some days it ran for just 10 minutes, Miller said.

The reactor was used for laboratory classes and to produce neutrons for experiments.

In one experiment, children washed their feet at night and dutifully covered them with socks before they slept. Their feet would sweat; their toenails would absorb the sweat. The toenails were clipped and sent to the UW.

The nail clippings were radiated and scientists studied them for high levels of sodium and potassium - indicators of a higher probability of the child getting cystic fibrosis, Miller said.

The university shut down the reactor in 1988 after a federal ruling that universities would have to replace the fuel they were using with low-grade uranium. It was feared the high-enriched uranium the UW reactor used as fuel could be stolen to make nuclear weapons.

UW officials decided they could do much of the research by computer modeling and that it was more cost-effective to use other reactors around the country when testing was needed.

The part of the reactor operation that would cause the most concern to the public - 4 kilograms of enriched uranium fuel - was transported to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in September 1989.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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