History of the Nuclear Reactor at Columbia University

Jun 01 1975

As part of the Nuclear Science and Engineering program (which later helped lead to the APAM Department) the nuclear reactor, was built for education and research purposes in the Engineering Terrace building.

However, the reactor was never fueled and was never radioactive. The related instruments were donated to other institutions and today, the only thing that remains at Columbia is the concrete shell of the reactor. Prof. Michael Mauel’s CTX plasma experiment now resides on top of this shell.

1960: Columbia received a quarter of a million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase and install a TRIGA Mark II reactor.

1963: Columbia’s application for construction was accepted by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

1964: Construction and installation of the reactor began.

1967: The building project was completed that April at a total cost of approximately one million dollars.

1968: In January, Columbia applied to the AEC for an operating license. In March, when the AEC filed notice to the Federal Register of its intention to issue the license, they received numerous petitions for intervention from residents and activists. Due to the prevailing climate at that time (student unrest and community opposition), Columbia asked AEC to place a hold on the application for the operating license.

1969: That summer, Columbia reactivated the application for the operating license. The AEC announced that a hearing would take place before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB). The ASLB denied the University’s application based on (1) lack of site criteria specific to research reactors, and (2) conflicting estimates of the amount of radioactive material that would be released in a postulated accident. The University ap-pealed the ALSB’s decision.

1971: Radioactive material release estimates were measured again in the laboratory of the reactor manufacturer, General Atomic. Based on the new data, the Appeal Board overturned the original ASLB decision and recommended issuance of a license to Columbia.

1972: Interveners filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for a review of the decision, which the Court later denied. The interveners then petitioned the Supreme Court for review of the Appeal Court decision.

1974: The Supreme Court denied the petition that June and Columbia’s position was upheld. The University only needed to reapply to the AEC in order to receive the operating license. At that time, Columbia was in the process of re-evaluating the Nuclear Science and Engineering program and the need for the nuclear reactor. With changes in upper management and financial considerations, the project was put on indefinite hold.

The information above was published in the Spring 2007 “Safety Matters” Newsletter from the Environmental Health & Radiation Safety and Environmental Health & Safety Office. Special thanks to George Hamawy.

The Reactor Facility that was Built at Columbia University but Never Used