Four years have passed since the little research reactor at UCLA was last used to irradiate samples or teach students the basic tenets of nuclear physics.
In the coming months, the university will begin taking bids from contractors who will tear out the concrete tomb that encased the reactor. Once the university gets approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, contractors will cart off the last remnants of the machine by the end of summer.
Earlier this month, reactor workers sent another shipment of parts to a dump in Hanford, Wash., said Charles Ashbaugh, an engineer who operated the reactor in better days and who has helped dismantle it.
Ashbaugh, a UCLA graduate who sports a handlebar mustache and wears plaid shirts except on official occasions, sat in his office next to the barren reactor lab recently and reminisced about the Argonaut.
On his bulletin board, family pictures share space with photographs of mushroom clouds and a bumper sticker that says, "Nuclear Plants Are Built Better Than Jane Fonda."
He said he sometimes gets nostalgic about the reactor.
"It was a good little reactor. It acted just like San Onofre Unit 1," he said, launching into a comparison of his tiny reactor and the power reactor near San Diego County. "It was a very good little model power reactor."
The reactor operated quietly for two decades in the basement of UCLA's engineering building before it became the center of a controversy.
In 1979, the normally routine process of renewing the reactor's license turned into an expensive legal battle when a public interest group launched a campaign to close down the facility, one of 40 research reactors in the country.
Members of the Committee to Bridge the Gap contended that the reactor was inherently dangerous, that it could overheat and explode, sending a lethal dose of radiation across the Westwood campus and into the surrounding neighborhood.
University officials argued that the reactor was entirely safe and that even an unskilled student or a malicious mischief-maker could not make the reactor explode or cause any of the highly enriched uranium fuel to melt.
Operating on a shoestring budget, the Committee to Bridge the Gap--made up primarily of former professors and UCLA graduates--fought until the university finally agreed to close the reactor in 1984, after four years of running on an interim permit. UCLA officials cited declining student interest in the nuclear reactor program for the closure.
However, the reactor, with its highly radioactive core, could not just be abandoned in the Boelter Hall basement. It would have to be "decommissioned" and its parts shipped to a nuclear waste dump.
Components Still 'Hot'
The components in the reactor have to be disposed of carefully because, even though four years have gone by, they are still "hot." The metal pieces and even some of the concrete casing are still irradiated from holding the radioactive material for years.
The hottest stuff--the fuel and the core material--is already gone. It was shipped out in the last months of 1984, Ashbaugh said. Other parts have been gradually stripped off, piled into steel boxes and sent off to the Hanford dump.
Ashbaugh and the other UCLA reactor experts have taken safety precautions to lower their radiation exposure. When it came right down to it, however, sometimes they had to turn it into a game of "hot potato," picking up a slightly radioactive piece of machinery and running with it, throwing it into a protective container seconds later.
"I got 5,500 millirem (radiation exposure) to my right hand" while painting identification numbers on 24 fuel plates that powered the reactor, Ashbaugh said. "You're allowed to get 7,500 millirem to your hands per year in the nuclear industry."
Visitors to the reactor room still must step on a machine that looks like a giant scale and is equipped with about 30 Geiger counters to detect contamination.
Once contractors carve out the concrete a foot below floor level in the reactor room, all the potentially contaminated material will have been removed, he said.
When all traces of the reactor are gone, the giant 49-foot-by-43-foot two-story room probably will be used for an advanced heat transfer laboratory for such things as meltdown studies, Ashbaugh said.
Steve Aftergood, an engineer who spent years fighting the UCLA reactor with the Committee to Bridge the Gap, said the dismemberment is the "final chapter" in a precedent-setting case in which public protests led to the shut-down of an operating reactor.