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Thursday, April 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:31 AM

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UW to dismantle nuclear reactor

Seattle Times staff reporter

A nuclear reactor in the heart of the University of Washington campus will be dismantled beginning Monday.

The odd relic of the nuclear heyday has sat idle for nearly 20 years, its purpose unknown to many of the young students who stream past it every day on their way to and from the gym.

But though the reactor is "teeny tiny" compared with those that generate power, it will still cost $4 million and take six months to remove all the dangerous materials, said Elizabeth Peterson, the UW project manager. Testing and final approval from federal regulators to demolish the building will take another six months, she said.

Some students are collecting signatures and plan to wear hazmat suits on campus today to protest the UW's choice of contractor, New York-based LVI Services. The students say the company has a questionable track record with safety procedures and its treatment of workers. John Leonard, LVI's co-chief operating officer, declined comment Wednesday.

Emily Bae, 21, a junior who is helping organize the protests, said she found out about the reactor five months ago.

"I was outraged," she said. "I didn't know what its purpose was and why we would still have it around."

But Alan Nygaard, a director in the UW's Capital Projects Office, said safety is the primary concern.

"We've done a very thorough job doing background checks and safety checks on this particular company," he said. "Extreme precautions are being taken."

Those include tight oversight by federal regulators and expert consultants, he said.

The reactor was built for training and educational purposes in 1959 and became operational two years later. It is perhaps the only reactor to be contained in a glass building, Peterson said. The idea was to allow students to peek in and show them there was nothing to fear.

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But a small leak of plutonium dust in 1972 during an experiment probably didn't help instill confidence. When officials found residual radiation in the reactor room floor, they covered it with paint and tiles, which were later removed, according to a UW report.

The reactor stopped operating in 1988, and the fuel rods were removed in the following years. By 1992, the UW's Department of Nuclear Engineering also was dissolved. But, despite several efforts, UW officials could never secure state funding to dismantle the reactor and demolish the building — until now. Inside the containment room remain 1960s-style beakers, notebooks and control knobs, Peterson said.

Dismantling the reactor will involve enveloping the contamination room within a larger, airtight structure before the door can be opened and the materials removed, Nygaard said.

The radioactive waste then will be shipped to facilities at Hanford, in Eastern Washington, and in Utah, Peterson said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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