Mar. 21, 2011
BOSTON — Japan’s frantic effort to cool down a damaged nuclear facility has thrust nuclear power reactors back into the public’s imagination here in the United States. That’s bringing attention to New England's Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee plants — but also to a little-noticed reactor in Massachusetts.
The MIT Nuclear Research Laboratory is a building in Cambridge with a blue-domed cylinder. It’s the second-largest of the country’s 26 university-based research reactors, but many passersby aren’t familiar with it.
“I’ve never noticed that. That’s scary,” said Patrick Jean Baptiste, as he walks home from work.
He’s one of several people walking through Kendall Square who don’t know about the reactor. But some of them aren’t the least concerned after learning what it is, like a tall, lanky man named David.
“What I’ve heard is that MIT does a pretty good job of keeping a close eye on it and using it for certain types of experiments that aren’t so threatening,” David said.
The reactor is a tank-type reactor. Cooled by light water, it uses heavy water as a reflector. It should not be compared with the Fukushima reactor in Japan. It’s considerably smaller and has a fuel inventory about 1,000 times less than that of a commercial nuclear power plant.
The facility was the subject of an ABC News investigation in 2005. At that time, reporter Brian Ross concluded that because there are no metal detectors or searches or significant guard presence, the facility is vulnerable.
The director of the lab, Dr. David Moncton, says that should not be a safety concern.
“Workers at this facility wear badges to detect radiation levels. The fact that outside this building, there is no visible armed guard presence should not concern anyone,” Moncton said.
Moncton said he wasn’t comfortable detailing exactly how the laboratory is safe-guarded.
“It’s not a good idea to advertise the ways in which you’re secure. We don’t have armed guards but we’ve got a lot of guards close by if we need them,” Moncton said.
He said the facility is secured in other ways, too.
“Whether it’s a truck bomb or an airplane that falls out of the sky and hits our containment shell, we’ve studied all of those potential calamities, we’re pretty comfortable, and the nuclear regulators commission is comfortable that this is a safe operation and presents no risk,” Moncton said.
The MIT nuclear reactor is closely associated with Cambridge's emergency planning authorities, including fire and police departments. And the Cambridge City Council periodically looks at the safety measures surrounding the MIT reactor.
Still, Cambridge City Councilor Sam Siedel, a staunch defender of the city’s academic institutions, is concerned about the lab’s presence in a full, urban area.
“It’s obviously a wonderful opportunity from the academic perspective about things you can do in terms of learning and studying,” Siedel said. “But the idea that these things exist right in the middle of a very dense population here in Cambridge and of course, right across the river is Boston, you know, I think we really ought to look at that,” Siedel said.
Siedel says he will pursue a Council resolution directing the Cambridge City manager “to confer with the universities to get a full report on all the activities and the safety precautions and measures they have in place to deal with all types of unintended outcomes that might happen around a nuclear reactor,” Siedel said.
On the streets of Cambridge, local designer Enrita Siegal is happy to hear that. “With everything going on in Japan, I have been more concerned about nuclear power and hoping that everything is being well taken care of here,” Siegal said.
But the MIT reactor should be put into perspective, counters Christine Jesstrup, a masseuse passing through Central Square.
“I know that MIT has a reactor. I mean, they’ve got nuclear physicists over there. I think the track record on nuclear is not that bad. And I wonder if paper cuts by a thousand coal plants and oil is maybe worse,” Jesstrup said.
Among other advances, the MIT facility has a track record of helping to develop methods of fighting brain cancer with radiation. But some Cambridge residents, like Baptiste, remain skeptical.
“You can’t trust these people. They tell you you’re safe. But you can’t believe what they’re saying. You know, anything can happen,” Baptiste said.
All parties concerned hope that a new safety audit by the Cambridge City Council might help assuage doubts and fears about the nuclear facility in their midst.