continued In June 1959, the first of three reactors to be operated on GA's Torrey Pines campus was demonstrated for Bryant Evans, a reporter with the San Diego Union. "One of the interesting things about the [reactor] flash is that it is safe enough for people to watch from the rim of the reactor," he wrote. "At Thursday's test, there was a brilliant flash of blue light. Then things were as they were before. The heat slowly passed to the water that surrounded the fuel elements. It was slow enough to prevent the water's boiling."
The Union reported in February 1960 that a second reactor had begun operating at GA. "Start of the device's chain reaction was announced by Frederick de Hoffmann, General Dynamics senior vice president and president of General Atomics. He said the new device would be used in new fields of nuclear research and testing. De Hoffmann did not specify any particular experiments."
In May 1965, the Union reported that the Atomic Energy Commission had approved yet another reactor on Torrey Pines Mesa. "The AEC said the company plans to use the reactor for research on high-energy neutron and gamma radiation. The third reactor would be located in a new extension planned for the General Atomics plant. The AEC said it has determined that operation of the new reactor would not endanger public health and safety." La Jollan William Whittemore, who says he managed the TRIGA facility for decades, notes that the third reactor, designated the Mark 3, was used to research the feasibility of employing nuclear energy to produce electrical power for space probes. The Mark 3, he says, was fueled with highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium. The special fuel, 70 percent enriched with Uranium 235, was made in the days before there was a concern for terrorists. "The reactor has to have very much increased security. When the project went dead, the reactor was decommissioned about 20 years ago." The fuel was then moved to the Mark F, he says.
But setting up the reactors has proved far easier than dismantling them and getting rid of the accompanying radioactive waste. Even though the reactors have been off-line for more than six years, their legacy of nuclear fuel, including at least a gram of deadly plutonium (euphemistically referred to by the government as "special nuclear material"), remains stored on GA's La Jolla site. The reason, say regulators, is that GA is still negotiating with the government over the terms of disposal at a federal nuclear waste site.
The reactors were shut down and decommissioned by the federal government's Nuclear Regulatory Commission beginning in the mid-1990s. "All special nuclear material in the TRIGA Mark I reactor was transferred to the TRIGA Mark F reactor and is possessed under that license."
The reactors themselves were dismantled and their parts were disposed of offsite. But because GA was still haggling with the government over what to do with the radioactive waste, one of the reactor's water-filled pools was left behind to hold the spent fuel, ostensibly protected from intruders by top-secret measures spelled out in a "physical security plan" the company filed with the NRC.
In July 2001, two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, the agency says, GA amended the security procedures to make them tougher. "On June 29, 2000, GA submitted the 'Safeguards Contingency Response Plan for the General Atomics TRIGA Reactors Facility' for NRC review and approval, and proposed changes to the 'Fixed Site and Transportation Plan for the Protection of Special Nuclear Material at the General Atomics TRIGA Reactors Facility,' " according to a July 11, 2001, NRC document.
"GA submitted the proposed amendment in response to specific changes in the long-term storage and physical protection of spent TRIGA fuel at the site. The amendments apply primarily to physical barriers, security practices, and administrative procedures....
"Access controls, physical barriers, communications, and alarm monitoring capabilities have been enhanced to provide greater assurance that unauthorized access into the material access area can be detected, assessed, and delayed until a proper and timely response can be accomplished."
The GA plan is intended to thwart anyone who tried to bring a bomb into the facility or spirit away nuclear fuel, according to the document.
"The administrative access control commitments made by GA provide adequate assurance that attempts to introduce unauthorized materials into, or remove materials from, the MAA can be detected," according to the document. Precautions include "maintaining and updating authorization lists, providing positive key and lock controls, and searching all personnel, packages, and vehicles.
"Testing and maintenance commitments provide an adequate level of assurance that the intrusion detection system will be capable of performing its intended function when called upon.
"As stated in a letter dated May 22, 2001, GA will ensure that suitable alternate communication capabilities are maintained if primary communications with outside support and response agencies are lost."
According to an NRC official in Washington, GA is currently licensed to have "up to" 30 kilograms of uranium and one gram of plutonium, a reaction by-product, at the site of La Jolla reactors. He says that the company and the federal Department of Energy, which oversees disposal of nuclear waste, "is trying to come up with some kind of agreement" to transport the material off the premises and to an atomic waste dump.
He says the agency is satisfied with current security arrangements at GA. Because the plan is classified, adoption of further protective measures in a time of war, such as troop deployments or additional guards, weaponry, or monitoring systems, would not be made public.
"I would say that the NRC takes its responsibility regarding security very seriously," said the NRC official. "There has not been a credible threat against a specific licensee. Even before 9/11, nuclear facilities were required to have very strict security plans for protecting facilities. They are among the most carefully and closely guarded facilities in the country. And since 9/11 we have required upgrades of that."
Whittemore, the former TRIGA manager, says that the risk to the public is virtually nonexistent. He says that even in the unlikely event that terrorists got their hands on the material, they could not build a true atomic bomb but could merely assemble a so-called "dirty bomb" to scatter radiation haphazardly. A direct hit on the fuel-storage facility from the air would be unlikely to successfully disperse any radioactivity, he insists.