Columbia’s Nuclear Reactor, the Triga Mark II


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September 18, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 49

Columbia May Explode Even If Reactor Won’t
by Jonathan Black

Peering off the glass bridge into the tank, you can see the graphic control rods plunging into the water. The water is distilled, slightly greenish in tint, and remarkably clear. You can easily define the chunky cylinder at the tank’s bottom, its 50 canister-holes now empty. The pile is surrounded by eight feet of concrete, lead doors, and detective meters so sensitive they pick up Chinese A-bomb blasts, halfway around the world from 120th Street.

But a lot of people are quite upset that Columbia is about to begin operating its nuclear reactor.

Columbia, on the other hand, doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. “My office is right on top of the thing,” assures Dean Wesley Hennesy of the Engineering School, “And I haven’t a single qualm. In Omaha there’s a similar reactor in the basement of an 11-story hospital, and it’s been operating without an accident for six years.”

The Triga Mark II is a teaching and research reactor. Compared with the giant power reactors sprouting all over the country, the Triga is very small, and ultra-safe. Two hundred fifty kilowatts. Enough to power as many toasters. “If anything is over-engineered,” says Hennessy, “it is this reactor. If they had built the George Washington Bridge in the same manner it would be a mile wide and block the river.”

Not everyone, however, is quite so sanguine. A leaflet distributed by “Morningsiders United” shows a giant mushroom cloud billowing over the campus with the caption, “Columbia Bombs Again.” Justus Poole, chairman of the Morningside Renewal Council, bitterly opposes the reactor. “If an accident happens,” says Poole, “no one knows the consequences. This is one of the densest populations in the world. There are 400,000 people in Harlem, 100,000 in the immediate Morningside area.”

Nuclear reactors are not accident-proof. Generally reactor accidents are minor incidents. Occasionally they have stopped just short of disaster, as documented in Sheldon Novick’s book, “The Careless Atom.”

…Whatever the answers, Columbia radicals will undoubtedly pin the reactor on the military-industrial complex — about 80 per cent of all operating reactors in the country are owned and run by General Electric and Westinghouse — and Columbia can take little solace in a fractured SDS to obscure the tensions. In fact, even if the reactor can’t explode, Columbia may be sitting on something much more volatile. Another gym?

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