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

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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  • by Nationless ( 2123580 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:06PM (#41544043)

    Is that it?

  • BMRR? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:11PM (#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 []. 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.

    • storage of spent fuel is also done in pools with borated water of course. The answer to Bruce's question is that his parent wasn't doing his job. The danger to Bruce even had he swam & dived ten foot deep in the pool was zero (divers even go into flooded cavity with reactor head open during refueling). He should be thankful he got to see the pretty blue glow with complete safety.

      Still wimpy compared to Technocrat, Bruce, you don't allow comments there. You want a site with traffic again you'll have

    • by Andy Dodd ( 701 )

      Based on the description, it sounds like that reactor had pressurized coolant.

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:11PM (#41544085)

    I think Bruce might be looking at the past through the lens of today. In the 60s, nuclear plants and labs had a couple of security guards to protect from theft and whatnot. They didn't carry guns. Unless there were secret things going on, these places weren't heavily guarded. Nuclear power wasn't considered a security issue. Nor were airports, train stations, etc.

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

      by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:27PM (#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.

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

        by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:57PM (#41544497)

        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.

        When I was in high school we did a tour of university's research reactor, and like you said, the only people there were a few grad students and an operator (or maybe he was a professor?) - no armed guards, no fancy security systems, we just had to sign in with the student at the front desk. We weren't allowed in the room that had the reactor pool,but we could see it (and the blue Cherenkov Radiation glow) through a large thick glassed window. They said that the water was sufficient to contain the radiation but they didn't want many people in the reactor room since any contaminants in the water could become radioactive.

        We were standing in the room that had the door to the reactor room, so I don't think it would have been hard for a kid to accidentally gain access to the reactor room if someone inadvertently left the door open or didn't pull it closed after they left the room.

        But at the time, the coolest thing in the building was the remote manipulator arms they used for working with radioactive materials. After playing with those arms, I decided I was going to have a career in nuclear science. Though somehow I ended up in IT instead.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          I've got you beat: They let us walk THROUGH the reactor in either the 6th or 7th grade as part of one of those summer-school programs. It was on the local military base (not long before the glorious (Clinton? Bush?) era base closures happened. A town with 5+ bases, two of them AFBs, all closed and sold off to commercial interests...).

          Still, one of the most awesome memories of my early life.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by AK Marc ( 707885 )
          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.
          • A cyclotron is a circular particle accelerator, not a nuclear reactor.

            • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
              Yes, yes it is. However, nothing I said was untrue, inaccurate, or incorrect. That they called their nuclear reactor "particle accelerator" doesn't change what it was. Or are you arguing that if I call a nuclear reactor a fish, it is no longer a nuclear reactor?
        • by Andy Dodd ( 701 )

          You got shafted... When I toured the Ward Lab at Cornell (during one of the last 2-3 years of its operation before it got shut down), we did get to stand at the top of the pool and look down.

          And you're right - even in 1999, there was, at most, a badge-swipe lock on the door.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward
        A lot of those research reactors have a lot less material in them than people picture when told it is a nuclear reactor. Some of them require considerable disassembly to remove material. Others would require major operations to actually get the material any distance away due to the radiation. In one case when asked "What if someone just swam down there and grabbed some of the material?" the response was "They would be dead before getting out the door with it." So if anything, the amount of security need
        • this isn't Hollywood (Score:5, Informative)

          by v1 ( 525388 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @11:13PM (#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.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            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 genera

          • by QuantumPion ( 805098 ) on Thursday October 04, 2012 @08:46AM (#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.

            • by v1 ( 525388 )

              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.

              And that is complete BS btw. See subject.

              MOST of the damage radiation does effectively fires a shotgun through your DNA, causing your cells to be unable to synthesize critical proteins and of course divide. Cells don't manufacture proteins the moment they need them, they keep a surplus. That's why even strong radiation isn't ins

      • Re:The 60s and 70s (Score:4, Insightful)

        by cbelt3 ( 741637 ) < minus punct> on Thursday October 04, 2012 @08:21AM (#41547565) Journal

        Bingo. I can recall being in the research reactor at U Mo in Columbia in the early 1970's. People forget how accessible facilities were before 9/11 . Apparently we're so used to the Police State that we've created that it's pretty much taken for granted.

        Which is a great pity. The less accessible cool research is for our children, the less interested our children will be in becoming cool researchers. Big Bang Theory and Mohawk Guy nonwithstanding.

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

      by Intrepid imaginaut ( 1970940 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @08:06PM (#41544561)

      Back in 2006 I walked directly through Heathrow without ever being checked. Jetlagged all to hell I took a side door, dressed in a business suit and looking authoritative, zombied my way through a maze of corridors and past a desk of men staring intently at a monitor, before finding my way outside the airport.

      On a subsequent trip, confused about the flight, I asked a man with a submachine gun the route to my gate, went there immediately, got there before the security team, and sat down watching every other passenger being frisked and scanned. The security guard was even there, someone pointed me out and obviously asked him a question, he shook his head no.

      The more things change, eh?

    • by bmo ( 77928 )

      In the late 70s I was doing yard work for an oceanographer and biologist down the road from me. We hopped in the truck one day because he had to go to the Graduate School of Oceanography in Saunderstown RI, which was literally a mile away, to get some stuff he was working on.

      The URI GSO has a research reactor. We just walked in, he did his stuff, and we left. No guards, nothing. Not even a receptionist especially on a Saturday. ID? On a 13 year old kid? You kidding?


    • Re:The 60s and 70s (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anachragnome ( 1008495 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @10:18PM (#41545269)

      I used to live in Mountain View, CA. when I was a teen. A friend and I used to ride our bicycles out on the levies that abounded along the southern San Francisco Bay--commonly know as the "Baylands"--often following the wooden catwalks that stretched for miles over the water surfaces that the levies partitioned off. The top of these levies were used as security roads around the eastern side of Moffet Field and Nasa's Ames Research Center.

      We soon realized that as long as we bypassed a security check-point near the north end of the base, using the catwalks, that once we were beyond the security roads on the levee, nobody gave us a second glance. I guess they assumed we were military kids or something, because we were able to ride our bicycles right past the tarmac by going through an open gate in the security fence--only once did anyone say anything to us and that was to tell us that we were supposed to walk our bikes when we were inside the hangars. We spent many hours wandering around those hangars that summer. Ames had the neatest stuff--helicopters with wings, jets with VTO rotors, a helicopter with no windshield (mind you, this was the early 80's--I'd never heard of a "drone" before), models of every sort lined up for wind-tunnel testing, etc. We once went out there in the middle of a hot, summer night and watched a large jet take off (judging by the lights and noise) and barely caught sight of a totally silent aircraft follow it off the ground less then 3 seconds behind the first, this second aircraft only being visible by virtue of creating a silhouette against the brightly lit Bay-Area sky--otherwise it was totally silent and had zero lighting. Not sure why they'd be doing so, but it looked like they were towing another aircraft under cover of darkness. Pretty exciting, especially for a kid.

      I somehow don't think that one could stroll into that place as easily these days. Lucky we didn't get shot.

    • by daveschroeder ( 516195 ) * on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @10:18PM (#41545273)

      You can still see the characteristic and beautiful Cherenkov radiation at the research reactor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison []. 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" [] around the US.

      A 2005 ABC News report [] 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 [] 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 [] 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.

  • This is it! (Score:4, Funny)

    by binarylarry ( 1338699 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:11PM (#41544089)

    This explains Bruce's Open Source super powers.

    It's like peter parker but instead of a spider, its a pool of radioactive cherenkov radiation.

    I knew it!

  • The way it starts out, it reminded me of the old Scott Adams adventure games from the Atari 800 days...
  • by SGDarkKnight ( 253157 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:13PM (#41544111)

    Thats the whole story? I was sort of expecting more. Well, to the final question of that rather short article. It was most likely the area where they kept their spent fuel bundles. I know in some nuclear power plants, the spent fuel bundles have to be kept in a pool of water for a number of years until their half life is met, and they can be transfered to a dry storage facility. Normally the "pool" is not guarded or locked due to personel constantly going in and out, but there is radiation checks that are done upon exiting the area, also you wear a device for monitoring your radiation dose.

    As for the blue glow, you can read all about it on wiki []

    • I can assume that you have not been in a commercial plant. The spent fuel pool is a locked room inside the vital area and is key card access controlled. The fuel is not being kept there because it is too radioactive. It is being stored there until decay heat becomes manageable. The area is typically monitored by area radiation monitors (ARM) and you will typically have a self reading dosimeter (MG,SAIC, or similar ) as well as a TLD (thermo-luminescent dosimeter) for record purposes. You may or may not

  • by slew ( 2918 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:14PM (#41544119)

    Q: What do Bruce Perens and an 82-year old nun have in common? []

  • I have family who lived in and around Oak Ridge in the 50's. Some of them got booted to make way for the plant. Legend has it one cousin was a technician at the plant, walking around with his clipboard up when he went through the wrong door. He stopped walking, looked down, and realized he was standing at the edge of the pool with the nuclear pile in it. He described the same blue glow. Dropped the clipboard, quit his job and moved to the Bahamas to track satellites for NASA.
    • It's called radiation theraphy. The reactor pool is best for treating your rheuma, take a 5 minute dip, swim around a bit, just keep your 6 feet safe distance from the Cherenkov glow and the fuel rods, it is pretty refreshing!
  • Likely a tirga research reactor or something similar
  • by GoodNewsJimDotCom ( 2244874 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:22PM (#41544201)
    The only way this could happen is if the guy in sector 7g was grossly incompetent.
  • Duh, it is obvious, he is an alien.
  • So what? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:35PM (#41544329)
    I live about 4 miles from a reactor. You can walk in and look down at the reactor during business hours. They commonly take local school children on tours. Unless you're going to dive into the water and start trying to yank fuel rods out by hand I don't really see what you could do with it. I suppose you could drop a pipe bomb in there but I don't really think it would do much.
    • A PWR fuel assembly weighs about 1400 lbs, a BWR one about 360 to 700 lbs. (several standard sizes). The fuel pellets are inside zircaloy rods. no kid is going to dive down that deep and yank anything.

      • From a security point of view you're right, from a practical point of view a teenager with good diving skils might try it. Once.
      • Both PWR and BWR usually have a closed, preasure proof lid (hence the name PWR) that prevents jumping in and swiming. Your parent poster was either describing a spent fuel pool or a completly different reactor configuration.

        • by Andy Dodd ( 701 )

          He's probably talking about a TRIGA. Far less fuel/lighter fuel, but it's still gonna be a bitch to swim down and remove it. If you fall in, drowning is a bigger worry than radiation.

  • by logicassasin ( 318009 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:40PM (#41544369)

    ... that I'll never get back.

    This was not "News For Nerds", it was "the ramblings of a guy on the internet".

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

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

    • by Empiric ( 675968 )

      It was news to me. ;)

      If you managed to find a browser to post that complaint, that doesn't contain code he was involved with in one way or another, consider me impressed.

      • As I've stated below, I know who he is, but why should that even matter? This was about as newsworthy as RNS tweeting what he ate for breakfast or Miguel de Icaza blurting somewhere that he's on his way to Ecuador for some R&R.

        His contributions to FOSS don't make him above a bit of criticizm or someone poking fun at a post on his blog.

    • Not sure if your trolling or ignorant, but will give the benefit of the doubt. Bruce PerensBio [].

      • I know exactly who Bruce is. Doesn't negate the fact that this was not "News", and it's STILL the ramblings of a guy (Bruce Perens, male = guy) on the internet (his blog = on the internet).

        • Meanwhile this triggered a really interesting discussion with a lot of informative posts. Good enough for me.

  • by dltaylor ( 7510 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @07:44PM (#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.

  • Sounds like he was in Maniac Mansion, not a licensed nuclear facility. Dr. Fred's security seemed to consist of two disembodied tentacles and an ornery nurse.

    Fred never did a good job of keeping people away from that pool.

  • My father was the fix-it-all man in 1957 when I was 10 years old. One day he was fixing an X-Ray machine, and after he fixed it he showed me how heart heart beats, which was fascinating. I watched it for about a minute. Innocent days.

  • by djnanite ( 1979686 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @08:33PM (#41544743) Homepage
    Which was nice...
  • by hotdiggity ( 987032 ) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @08:33PM (#41544747)
    You find yourself alone in a room, in front of a deep square or rectangular pool of impressively clear, still water.

    There is a pile of material at the bottom of the pool, and a blue glow of Cherenkov radiation in the water around it.


    You cannot take that item.


    You have:

    • a rope
    • a watch
    • non-radiation-resisting clothes

    > GO NORTH

    You cannot go that way.


    Sorry, I don't know what you mean.


    You have jumped into the pool.

    You have died from radiation poisoning.

  • by dfenstrate ( 202098 ) <> on Wednesday October 03, 2012 @08:56PM (#41544893)

    At some of these research reactors, you can pull the rods out of the reactor shortly after criticality and take your measurements with the fuel rod in your hand.
    Individual research reactor loads may or may not be particularly dangerous- you can have a radiation well above background level, but far below the rate required to cause health issues.
    However, a recently irradiated fuel assembly from a power reactor will kill you in short order*, if not shielded by a lot of water.

    As for the young Mr. Peren's misadventure, these places are built for adults with the security clearance and knowledge required to get into the facility in the first place. These knowledgable, responsible adults may then escort visitors on arranged tours.

    A visitor can be shown (more or less) whatever their escort has access too. The escort's duty is to keep the visitors out of trouble while showing them around. It seems as though Bruce's escort was a bit negligent (and knew it, from the student's displeasure.)

    *perversely, the high radiation level of a used fuel assembly is a bit of a security feature. You can't steal something that will kill you before you can get out the door.

  • When I was a 3rd grader on a field trip, circa 1965, we went to LA's Griffith Observatory where there was (and is) a 500,000 voltTesla coil [], behind a glass door and maybe four feet high. Part of the tour was (and no longer is) being able to feel the zap from the coil.

    I remember being asked to climb the activated Tesla coil and refusing. To this day I don't know if the teacher was serious, or what if anything would have resulted if I had climbed the sucker.

  • But he did sneak in some zinnia seeds for me and had them irradiated so I could do an experiment for biology class about how the radiation influenced the germination rate. And I had a REAL chemistry set too! Great days!
  • I actually read the article too... Nothing to see there besides the headline. The author makes it seem like this happens today and his extremely hazy memory is representative of walking straight into a active nuclear reactor (think of the kids! they're so unsafe). There are a lot of other explanation that people are leaving on the page that are more likely. How did this even make it on slashdot?
  • Research facilities (Score:4, Informative)

    by drolli ( 522659 ) on Thursday October 04, 2012 @02:30AM (#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 damaki ( 997243 ) on Thursday October 04, 2012 @05:36AM (#41546797)
    My father use to work for the French national police force. It's a half police, half military police corp.
    One day, he visited a nuclear power plant for whatever security reason. With a group of people, he walked around one of these famous pool, then just clumsily fell in it. He was of course decontaminated as soon as I happened, and well, he still has no cancer decades after, even as a heavy smoker.
    Sadly, he did not get any superpower either, just a smart kid, years later ;)
    • You'd have to dive to get any signifficant dose of radiation. For the typical research reactors I doubt anyone can hold his breath enough to take a lethal dose (munching at the material excepted :-)
    • by BancBoy ( 578080 )

      Your family name isn't Clouseau by any chance?

  • (Before 9/11) I went on a tour of the University of Maryland TRIGA training reactor (picture looking into core []), and yes you could see the Cherenkov radiation at the bottom of the pool when the reactor was running.

A consultant is a person who borrows your watch, tells you what time it is, pockets the watch, and sends you a bill for it.