In an action that may have more to do with golf than good science, Washington State University decided quietly this summer to shut down its nuclear reactor that is a top candidate for a major cancer research program.
Located at the farthest northeast corner of campus, the reactor is adjacent to land slated for expansion of the university golf course. In fact, the 36-year-old Nuclear Radiation Center sits on a hill that is the preferred site for a new course club house.
WSU officials say the two projects - golf course expansion and reactor dismantling - aren’t related. But many researchers, who say they were blindsided by the decision to close the facility, aren’t so sure.
Professors who use the reactor and other facilities at the center say they first learned of the decision to shut down the facility July 1, when WSU’s administration withheld signatures from grant proposals for new reactor research.
Karen DePauw, who is conducting a study of reactor use for the provost’s office, said she understood the timing of the decision to close the reactor was based on “a window of opportunity” WSU has discovered to receive state money for the expensive task of decommissioning the reactor.
The University of Washington, which has already removed the fuel from its reactor, will ask Washington’s Legislature for funds to clean up its reactor building and WSU hopes to piggy back on that proposal.
“I can state unequivocally, this decision has nothing to do with the golf course,” said DePauw, who said she was not at administrative meetings where the decision was made.
Many WSU researchers were surprised to learn a decision had been reached that shutting down the reactor was even desirable.
“We had no warnings on this decision,” said Roger Willett, chemistry department chair who last fall spent $250,000 to outfit a new radiochemist recruited to the department. “It was known something would have to be done with the fuel elements, but it was always considered more expensive to close (the reactor).”
Under new federal regulations, a special enriched uranium used in WSU’s reactor must be replaced. With that in mind, the desirability of keeping the reactor was studied by the faculty senate, which determined the reactor was operating cost effectively. That committee set goals for measuring future success of the operation, which Gerald Tripard, director of the Nuclear Radiation Center, says have been exceeded.
Tripard says at least $3.5 million of research money comes to WSU through the center each year, which has an annual operating cost of around $300,000. On the horizon are new research opportunities that could potentially bring more money and prestige to WSU.
Those opportunities include a retrofit of WSU’s reactor to serve for cancer treatment research now being conducted by WSU Professor Patrick Gavin at a New York facility.
The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory is looking for a reactor to be converted for the cancer research, known as Boron Neutron Capture Therapy. The Georgia Institute of Technology headed a list of sites for the facility until defueling its reactor in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. WSU now tops the list for the facility and Gavin has applied for a $250,000 grant from the Department of Energy for a reactor retrofit.
Originally asked by WSU’s administration to hold off, Gavin was allowed to submit the his proposal after it became clear the earliest WSU’s reactor could be defueled was 2011.
If funded, the retrofit would give WSU one of three centers in the nation equipped to handle the procedure which, in animal tests has, proved at least as effective as standard radiation cancer treatments and six to seven times faster. “We’d be world-class,” said Tripard. “Everyone in the country wanted this project. We had it handed to us.”
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