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Power Security

Bruce Perens: The Day I Blundered Into the Nuclear Facility 181

Posted by samzenpus
from the did-you-remember-to-lock-the-door? dept.
Bruce Perens writes "I found myself alone in a room, in front of a deep square or rectangular pool of impressively clear, still water. There was a pile of material at the bottom of the pool, and a blue glow of Cherenkov radiation in the water around it. To this day, I can't explain how an unsupervised kid could ever have gotten in there."
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Bruce Perens: The Day I Blundered Into the Nuclear Facility

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  • BMRR? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @06:11PM (#41544083)
    BNL had three research reactors.

    Not sure whether BMRR or HFBR were water-moderated, but I'd bet it was the Brookhaven Medical Research Reactor [bnl.gov]. A bunch of beautiful glowing stuff at the bottom of a deep pool of water is a common configuration for a research reactor used for the production of medical isotopes.

  • Re:The 60s and 70s (Score:5, Informative)

    by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @06:27PM (#41544245)

    Lots of universities had research reactors (a few still do). They had no more security than some bored grad students working in the outer lab. If it was an open house even they would have been too busy to look after every wandering kid.

  • by dltaylor (7510) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @06:44PM (#41544397)

    Lived in Chattanooga for a while "back when"; school trips sometimes went out to Oak Ridge. Souvenirs included a dime in a little case, and it was "fun" to watch a Geiger counter react to it.

    Doesn't surprise me that Bruce could get near a non-weapons reactor.

  • Re:This is it! (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @06:47PM (#41544417)

    Some radiation is in fact radioactive. In particular neutron radiation can undergo beta decay.
    Cerenkov radiation, however is stable.

  • by dltaylor (7510) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @06:49PM (#41544437)

    "Pictures, or it didn't happen":

    http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/medalsmementoes/dimes.htm [orau.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @06:54PM (#41544471)

    I think Bruce Perens has done enough for computing that he's considered more than "a guy on the internet."

  • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @09:18PM (#41545273)

    You can still see the characteristic and beautiful Cherenkov radiation at the research reactor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison [wisc.edu]. I've seen it a number of times.

    Up until recently, it contained 1400 pounds of highly-enriched (weapons grade) U-235 in 58-pound bundles. It is in a building across from a 7-level parking ramp and an 80,000-person football stadium.

    There are a number of such "Research and Test Reactors" [nrc.gov] around the US.

    A 2005 ABC News report [go.com] found:

    - "No guards. No metal detectors. Bags were brought into the reactor room. Doors to the building are open during the day, and no IDs are required for entry."

    - "The building was undergoing major renovation, and construction workers, large trucks and building materials surrounded the rear exterior."

    - "The university Web site includes a 'virtual tour' and detailed photos, descriptions and diagrams of the reactor, the fuel elements and the control room. The reactor manager informed the Fellows that tours had to be scheduled three weeks in advance and that a locked door with a window view of the reactor was the closest they could get. But a friendly professor told the Fellows about a basement entry to the reactor room, where a reactor operator opened the door and let the Fellows photograph the reactor from the doorway. Two other operators allowed the Fellows to come inside carrying their tote bags, and briefly take photographs about 15 feet from the reactor's base. No campus security ever approached the Fellows."

    An 2004 New York Times report [nytimes.com] found:

    - "[UWNR's] fuel is weapons-grade uranium. If it were stolen, experts say, it could give terrorists or criminals a major head start on an atomic bomb."

    - "[...] out of concern that the uranium might be turned into bomb fuel, the Department of Energy has spent millions of dollars to develop lower-grade fuel and convert scores of reactors to run on it. [...] But the six campus reactors in this country are not among them."

    - "Campus reactors have far less security than places where the government keeps bomb-grade uranium, and they may have foreign students of unknown political sympathies."

    - "[...] the fuel now in the campus reactors is dangerously radioactive, making it hard to handle. [...] however, that highly enriched uranium was an easier fuel from which to build a bomb than is plutonium."

    - "The reactor operators are paid $10.50 an hour. They recently got a raise to that level [...] because someone discovered that campus file clerks were paid more than the reactor operators.

    - "[...] the current fuel load will last about 108 years at current rates of use."

    "The truck is the real threat. You want to make sure the truck stays away 250 feet minimum." - Ronald Timm, Former Department of Energy security analyst

    Here, the primary entrance to a major parking ramp is about 50 feet away.

    Also, it's not like it's really a mystery what he saw at BNL. There have only been so many reactors there [bnl.gov] in the last 60 years. It's odd, beautiful, and I suppose comparatively rare for a person to see, but it's not a big deal.

  • Re:The 60s and 70s (Score:3, Informative)

    by AK Marc (707885) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @09:20PM (#41545285)
    When I went to the Cyclotron (the name for the Texas A&M nuclear reactor), there was no security, other than a badge-swipe door that runs off student ID. I was escorted, so no idea if mine would have worked. Once in, there was no security at all I could see. There were few other people, but we were escorted by an "elder" of the facility, so they likely knew him by sight.
  • this isn't Hollywood (Score:5, Informative)

    by v1 (525388) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @10:13PM (#41545509) Homepage Journal

    "They would be dead before getting out the door with it."

    My initial reaction to this is "this isn't Hollywood, where two 9mm bullets makes a car explode." Radiation in fatal doses takes at leas hours and usually days or weeks to kill you. If it's extremely high it could give you a pounding headache, dizzy, very sick to your stomach, or possibly even pass out. But if you got to that point quickly you'd have been many times over the fatal dose. A high enough dose of xrays can knock you unconscious, but even that requires a more energetic source than decay.

    Basically what I'm saying is radiation poisoning isn't instant. All but the most intense exposure will simply write your death sentence. It will take at least many hours to play out and actually stop you from breathing. You could probably swim down and grab a rod and try to muscle it to the surface. (it's very dense) By the time you got to the surface you might even be starting to show signs of blistering on your hand that is holding the rod, but even that is more likely to be in the 10 minute range. The heat the rod is producing without the water cooling it would probably be more of a bother for you. If it was radioactive enough, you'd be a dead man walking, but walking for sure, for awhile. (and setting off every radiation alarm you got near on your way out the door with the rod) Oh, and it might be messing with your vision when you got close to the rods. Some of the people that were cleaning up at chernobyl got their skin tingling and got to see the "fairy lights" sparkling around them, which had nothing to do with actual sparkles around them, it was messing with their nervous system at that point. A lot of those people died, a good chunk of them 2-20 weeks later.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 04, 2012 @01:01AM (#41546109)

    There are multiple ways radiation can kill you on several different time scales. You can't just give a "typical" number, because it depends on the does. Weaker doses that mess up your ability to regenerate blood can take weeks to kill you, higher doses that stop you from being able to absorb nutrients from food can kill you in several days. Damage to the nervous system can be from days to hours or less depending on the dose.

    And remember, one of the potential reasons to have research reactor is to generate short half-life, high activity materials that would decay too fast to be produced and shipped from somewhere else. The dosing could fall anywhere on the scale depending on exactly what research they are doing. Not to mention the really high stuff I've read reports of from national labs (although they would have much higher security than a university), where in one case, efforts to dislodge a stuck sample was foiled at one point by the radiation melting plastic tools being used by a remote controlled robot.

  • Research facilities (Score:4, Informative)

    by drolli (522659) on Thursday October 04, 2012 @01:30AM (#41546201) Journal

    are the most unsafe place you can imagine. I worked in a lab where a small accelerator building was attached. All doors were unlocked an unsupervised (only the "tritium" room where most radioactive sample were stored) was locked. The rest was only locked/with alarms when the accelerator was running. Some (quite small, but highly active) source used for the lab courses were (in a pile of shielding material), essentially open around the clock; and that was in the mid-90s. Everybody who knew where these were could just go in the building, enter the room and take them (if you are stupid enough....). In the same building i opened a shelf (which had no warning signs) and suddenly found contaminated tools (which were marked).

    If we had an open day, and the hand of a four year old would have been small enough to insert into the hole into which the samples were let down by a rod to activate them, also something bad could have happened.

    At least fore radioactive stuff there was a mandatory handling lesson, and standard procedures. What really annoys me is when it comes to chemicals in science labs. You would be surprised how much radioation it takes to result in the same increase in cancer rate as for certain chemicals commonly used; which is exactly the reason why industry either banned these or is using them with very good precautions and good working equipment, while in sciene any untrained grad student just uses these without gloves.

    I agree that even on a 'open door' day a door with seriously radioactive material in an large accellerator facility should be locked, but its easy for me to imagine that its not. I believe that the biggest problem is "build a fence around the facility and we know everybody inside" method. That worked in the last century during normal operation (some other person would be spotted quite reliably), but on open door days it obviously does not work and i seriously doubt it works with the current fluctuation of inhabitants of a scientific building.

    After one or two years in science, the first thing which i did when entering a new working space in an unknown area was to clean the table very carefully and look in all drawers on my desk. (and radioactivity was the least of my concerns....).

  • by rioki (1328185) on Thursday October 04, 2012 @02:23AM (#41546383) Homepage
    This was a scientific test reactor... The security is at the gate and they passed that. The actual room is totally safe. The "old" neutron test reactor of the TH-Munich could be visited. If you fell into the water you would need treatment; for desalination. That is they would rub you down with lotion, because the distilled water would remove the salts in your outer skin. Now the "new" one on the other hand can't be seen, but not because of radiation, but because it is a high pressure reactor. OMG I saw a nuclear reactor...
  • by QuantumPion (805098) on Thursday October 04, 2012 @07:46AM (#41547793)

    Dose from an unshielded spent fuel bundle (or research reactor) is far greater than other typical sources - on the order of 50,000 to 1,000,000 R/hr. These kinds of doses can be instantly fatal. An HP tech explained to me once that if you placed a spent fuel bundle on a football field, and ran towards it as fast as you could, you would drop dead before you could touch it. If you swam to the bottom of a research reactor to try to touch the fuel you would most certainly become incapacitated by the time you got close enough to touch it.

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