The radioactive fuel that once powered the University at Buffalo's nuclear research reactor will be removed from the South Campus facility sometime this year, according to UB officials.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently informed the school the department will ship the spent reactor fuel to a storage facility in Idaho this year, said Michael F. Dupre, UB's associate vice president for facilities.
The university then will launch an extensive decontamination of the reactor facility, a process that could take three years and cost as much as $10 million.
"We're optimistic that it's going to be a more minimal cost," Dupre said. He added that part of the facility may be able to be reused for other programs.
Shipping the radioactive fuel and removing any traces of radiation from the facility are the last steps in a lengthy decommissioning process.
Word of the impending fuel removal comes 10 years after UB first announced it was deactivating the reactor. School officials in 1994 cited the cost to operate the facility and its declining value to researchers.
In recent years, Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia also decommissioned their research reactors.
"They are a vanishing breed," said David R. Vasbinder, director of UB's nuclear research reactor for the last 11 years.
The UB move is shrouded in secrecy. University officials said they are not allowed to disclose exactly when the fuel will be shipped or the route the shipment will take.
After the 9/1 1 terror attacks, authorities feared that nuclear reactors could be enticing targets for terrorists.
At the direction of federal officials, UB removed all campus signs indicating the location of the reactor and took any detailed references to it off the university's Web site.
"This is a post- 9/1 1 world, and they're very careful about it," Vasbinder said.
The reactor is located in a nondescript white, circular building off Winspear Avenue, not far from the old football field. The containment facility is constructed of reinforced concrete 6 feet thick.
The building, including office space, is 24,698 square feet, cost $1.15 million to construct and opened in June 1960. The reactor could generate 2 megawatts, or 2 million watts, of power and is far smaller than commercial reactors.
The reactor had been used to produce short-lived radioisotopes for medical research.
From 1984 to 1994, Buffalo Materials managed the reactor and used it to conduct scientific tests on behalf of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
UB's reactor generally operated without controversy, though the 1989 leak of 1,000 gallons of water from the reactor prompted some calls to shut it down.
In 1994, when university officials began the decommissioning process, UB's reactor was one of 50 at U.S. colleges.
During the past 10 years, UB has waited for the Department of Energy to find a suitable location for the radioactive materials housed in the reactor, Dupre said. "We've really been in a hold pattern," he said.
UB has retained a consultant, MJW Corp., to help it prepare for the fuel removal. The reactor fuel is radioactive but is not weapons-grade.
The Energy Department initially had told UB removal of the fuel would take place in fall 2004 and then early 2005, but now has assured the school it will be mid-2005, Dupre said.
The public won't know the fuel is gone until after the fact, but the Energy Department will notify the proper authorities at the time of the shipment.
After the fuel is shipped out, UB will hire a company to lead the decontamination of the containment facility and to make sure the project meets strict federal guidelines.
Cleanup could take two or three years, Vasbinder said.
The Energy Department pays for the shipping, but UB is on the hook for the cleanup tab, which could range from $5 million to $10 million, depending on what needs to be done.
The university is looking for other sources for the money so the full cost doesn't come out of the school's capital budget.
"No one wants to pay, but someone has to," Vasbinder said.