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Kodak Basement Lab Housed Small Nuclear Reactor 169

Posted by Soulskill
from the could-have-been-quite-the-kodak-moment dept.
McGruber writes "The Rochester (NY) Democrat-Chronicle has the interesting story of the Eastman Kodak Co.'s Californium Neutron Flux Multiplier, which was housed in Building 82 of Kodak Park in Rochester, NY. The multiplier contained 3½ pounds of highly enriched (weapons-grade) uranium. Kodak used it to check chemicals and other materials for impurities, as well as for tests related to neutron radiography, an imaging technique. From the article: 'When Kodak decided six years ago to close down the device, still more scrutiny followed. Federal regulators made them submit detailed plans for removing the substance. When the highly enriched uranium was packaged into protective containers and spirited away in November 2007, armed guards were surely on hand. All of this — construction of a bunker with two-foot-thick concrete walls, decades of research and esoteric quality control work with a neutron beam, the safeguarding and ultimate removal of one of the more feared substances on earth — was done pretty much without anyone in the Rochester community having a clue.'"
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Kodak Basement Lab Housed Small Nuclear Reactor

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  • by blind biker (1066130) on Monday May 14, 2012 @05:08PM (#39999285) Journal

    The department of physics at our university (Aalto university, Finland) has their own nuclear reactor. [wikipedia.org] This brings the total number of nuclear reactors in Finland to five.

  • by twotacocombo (1529393) on Monday May 14, 2012 @05:13PM (#39999329)
    Los Angeles used to have another experimental reactor, until it melted down, fell over, then sank into the swamp: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Susana_Field_Laboratory#Sodium_reactor_experiment [wikipedia.org]
  • by muon-catalyzed (2483394) on Monday May 14, 2012 @05:20PM (#39999397)
    Interestingly, in crazy Europe, they have nuclear reactors inside major cities too, and without much controversy or resistance. Most people there do not even know they live a few hundred meters from a potential nuclear ground zero:

    http://www.helmholtz-berlin.de/zentrum/grossgeraete/ber2/index_en.html [helmholtz-berlin.de]
    http://www.enygf.eu/technical-visits/training-reactor-vr1.html [enygf.eu]

    What's more, these are testing facilities, a hocus pocus test sites.
  • I had a clue (Score:3, Informative)

    by Steve1952 (651150) on Monday May 14, 2012 @05:32PM (#39999517)
    I was in Rochester as a small boy in the 1950's, and knew about the reactor from about the age of 4 or so. As I recall, some of the cooling water drained into a small duck pond (surrounded about the fence). I was told that there was some small amount of radioactivity, although no one much was concerned at the time. At any rate, the main thing that got through my 4 year old mind was that for some reason it was not a good idea to try to climb the fence or get near the ducks. At any rate, it was generally known, and not a secret.
  • Re:Surprising... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Zcar (756484) on Monday May 14, 2012 @05:43PM (#39999667)

    3.5 lbs? Get another 30 times as much and you'll be close to a critical mass (bare sphere, 85% enriched). 3.5 lbs isn't that dangerous or, by itself, all that interesting from a nuclear weapons proliferation standpoint.

    Fission occurred, but it needed to be pumped by an external neutron source and a runaway chain reaction was pretty much impossible. We're only talking about a ~6 cm sphere of it.

  • by ace37 (2302468) on Monday May 14, 2012 @05:48PM (#39999743) Homepage

    Wikipedia lists 29 active and licensed civilian reactors; the majority of them belong to universities. Most were built in the 60's, most are General Atomics TRIGA reactors, and the power outputs range from 1 W to 10 MW. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_reactors [wikipedia.org]

    A few other civilian groups are licensed to have nuclear material, and of course other sectors and nations have lots of the stuff. It's really pretty common.

  • by bware (148533) on Monday May 14, 2012 @06:10PM (#40000007) Homepage

    General Atomics plays with experimental nuclear and fusion reactor prototypes just a few miles down the road from our office building. I think it's really freakin' cool but I sure there would be a big hubballoo if more San Diegans knew about it.

    It's called General Atomics, for chrissakes. I mean, it's not as though they're disguising it.

  • by tkrotchko (124118) on Monday May 14, 2012 @06:16PM (#40000075) Homepage

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennsylvania_State_University_Radiation_Science_%26_Engineering_Center [wikipedia.org]

    They used to give tours to science undergraduates. It was a big swimming pool and you could see the Cherenkov radiation as you watched from the top of the pool.

    Very interesting!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 14, 2012 @06:32PM (#40000237)

    My understanding is that "weapons grade" only refers to a degree of purity, and not to actual intent... but I still have to wonder why they chose to have a "weapons grade" reactor to begin with. What benefits are there to having this as opposed to say standard Uranium reactors?

    It's a neutron source, not a power-generating reactor. It used a smidgeon (tenth of a gram or so) of Cf-252 to spit out some initial neutrons, said neutrons being used to kick off a small (non-self-sustaining) chain reaction in the U-235. The U-235 reaction multiplies the Cf-252 flux by a few orders of magnitude and is the source of the overwhelming majority of the neutron flux. In order to keep such a source compact (and in order to not have to deal with the complications afforded by exposing tons of U-238 to a neutron flux), you probably need to use HEU for such a device.

    Once you've got it up and running, you can then use the neutrons to activate other materials and observe the spectra of whatever your neutron-activated target material emits, which probably enables you to know with a very high degree of accuracy, what your target material was made of. Once you're done with it, pull out the Californium and the whole thing shuts itself down.

    It's kind of crazy to think that we've got Iran spending so much of their state resources trying to manufacture enriched uranium meanwhile we've got Kodak sitting on 3.5lbs of the stuff in a basement in NY doing rando-tests with it.

    Kodak didn't make the HEU, the DoE made the HEU. Kodak was licensed to use it, under very strict controls. It wasn't "hidden in a basement lab", it was buried in a basement for both radiological and security reasons, and it wasn't "forgotten about", its existence just wasn't widely publicized. The DoE knew where it was all the time. It just didn't want to publicize it, for obvious reasons.

  • Re:sigh... (Score:5, Informative)

    by macwhiz (134202) on Monday May 14, 2012 @10:23PM (#40001821)

    And you have to realize that Kodak Park, back then, was big enough to have its own fire department. Not a fire engine. Not a fire house. A fire department with multiple stations throughout the Park, all trained to handle utterly massive hazmat incidents and fires. Kodak Park was the biggest chemical-processing facility this side of the Mississippi... which, of course, includes all of New Jersey. When local fire departments needed hazmat training, they went to Kodak. I worked there; trust me, three kilograms of uranium was probably one of the smallest disaster risks inherent in the operation. Miles of pipelines carrying acids and solvents, massive steam works from a power plant big enough to run a small city... Every day I drove past this gleaming stainless steel tank, think a milk tanker stood on end, labelled "LIQUID NITROGEN—NOT COMPATIBLE WITH LIFE". That was fun on windy days when it would sway, and images from Terminator 2 unavoidably came to mind.

    Kodak has its problems and warts, but anyone accusing Kodak of disdain for Rochester is exhibiting an utter ignorance of the histories of Rochester, Kodak, and George Eastman. I'd frankly be hard-pressed to come up with an example of a company that's done more for their community. (Recent run-into-the-ground years excepted...)

  • Re:sigh... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @06:28AM (#40003407)

    [rolls eyes]
    A block of enriched uranium isn't much different from a block of regular uranium (it's *slightly* more radioactive), which is to say you could handle it with gloves, hide it under your bed, dress it up like Natalie Portman and have it sitting at your breakfast table while eating your oatmeal, and you would not be in serious health danger. We're not talking plutonium or cobalt-60, here. As long as you didn't powder it (it's pyrophoric) or try to eat it, it is not particularly reactive or dangerous, especially if in a properly shielded container. Sitting in the lab there was no more risk than, say, your average hospital that has a radiation therapy facility. In fact, probably less because of the nature of the isotopes involved (the isotopes in radiation treatment are MUCH more radioactive).

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