A subcritical assembly reactor

Another eventful news episode from my alma mater, after recent reports that it houses a satanic church.

This time a longstanding urban myth in Cork has finally been proven correct: University College Cork does indeed house a real-life student training reactor that houses 2.5 tonnes of uranium.

The proper name for the contraption is a subcritical assembly (SCA). It was received by UCC in the 70s from the United States, but has not been used since.

A critical mass (of a substance), according to Wikipedia, is the smallest amount of that substance needed to tick off a nuclear chain reaction, so the assembly, to this unscientific blogger, sounds like a device to produce very small nuclear reactions.

The fairly amazing story came to light after the Minister for Education, Ruari Quinn, took a parliamentary question on the matter and was forced to confirm the strange truth.

The reactor has been speculated to exist for a number of years (see, for example, this thread from a popular Cork discussion board), but discussions aimed at finding a way to remove the material have  been behind closed doors, leaving the ultimate question of whether or not UCC houses a uranium facility the stuff of rumour and speculation.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) has been liaising with the university for a number of years to try trash out a solution that would get the material off campus, but evidently one hasn't been forthcoming.

The material is apparently kept within a secure facility and guarded by 24 hour CCTV security, but the fact that there's a small quantity of uranium a few minutes' walk from where I'm writing this post is quite strange.

Strangest of all though has been the authorities' fairly unassertive reassurance that they are 'hopeful' that the reactor and the uranium it's made can be removed, which doesn't instill much confidence that that can actually be done.

Previous efforts to remove the uranium rods seem to have been met with a good degree of disinterest, owing presumably to the cost and effort such an operation would entail.

"Until there is both the will and the money, it will just lie there," Dr John O'Grady, a chief scientist with the national radiological institute said rather nonchalantly in a previous interview with the Irish Times.

Despite the obvious problems the mini reactor has generated, though, it does seem fairly cool that physics and chemistry students were presumably able to practice their skills on one of these things until it was decided to put it into permanent retirement.

As law students we thought that the law faculty's new moot court was a nice embellishment to our legal education, but it obviously didn't compare to the experience of manufacturing small quantities of nuclear material as part of university coursework!

Failing the 'will' and 'money' to get rid of the waste, though, both of which seem to be in short supply, it seems like a safe bet that UCC will continue to house 2.5. tonnes of uranium on campus!