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Editorial: Time to shut down RPI reactor

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
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Local developers and public officials are putting a good face on it.

But if Schenectady really wants a clear path to developing the east shoreline of the Mohawk River, and specifically the former American Locomotive Co. site, RPI's 60-year-old nuclear reactor has to go.

There's no good reason for it to remain there, and no good reason for the college and federal officials to delay its removal any longer.

Schenectady needs this site to aid in its economic revitalization. It's pretty clear that the former brownfield site off Erie Boulevard will be redeveloped in some manner in the next few years. That will likely be true, even if the Galesi Group's current proposed riverfront development project doesn't go forward and even if it doesn't end up including a new casino.

There's just something about the phrase,"nuclear reactor," that's going to stick in someone's mind once the site gets more attention. A nuclear reactor, regardless of how small and safe, is a potential liability.

The Galesi Group generously says it's prepared to construct its project around the reactor. But other developers might not think that way. Who's to say its presence hasn't already been part of a private discussion for a project that never ultimately reached the city's ears? As long as it's still standing, there's always the possibility it could be an impediment.

It's not a problem as long as the site consists of a piles of scrap metal, construction debris and torn-up pavement. But developers will be thinking more about the reactor when deciding whether and where to locate a hotel or condos on the site. Potential residents will be thinking about the reactor when they're deciding whether they want to live next to it. Hotel guests and restaurant patrons will be thinking about the reactor when deciding whether they want to be that close to it or even see it while they're looking at the riverside view.

From an educational perspective, removing it would have an impact. The facility is one of only 25 remaining research reactors in the country. RPI's nuclear engineering students get hands-on experience in experimental planning, radiation protection and criticality safety. The facility is not the obsolete "tinker toy" operation that some have portrayed it to be. Still, other universities in the country have shut down their nuclear reactors in favor of conducting their training through realistic simulations instead. And future reactor operators could get that hands-on experience at the remaining 24 university sites.

With not even enough capacity to power a light bulb, less than 100 watts, the facility is not Three Mile Island or Fukushima waiting to happen. But nuclear waste, however small the amount, is stored there. In fact, where to dispose of the waste stored on the site is said to be a key factor in getting the reactor removed. The U.S. Energy Department owns the fuel, but apparently relocating fuel from here isn't a top priority. Cost shouldn't be a factor. RPI officials in 2011 estimated it would cost around $444,000 to deactivate the reactor, not a large amount of money for that school.

And don't forget the fact that the stark, white building surrounded by two chain-link fences is ugly. A developer would likely want it removed from the riverbank for aesthetics alone.

Officials say there have been discussions about removing the facility and that plans are apparently in the works for getting rid of it. But they've been saying that on and off for a long time, and the facility is still there.

Pledges and discussions are no longer good enough. Schenectady needs the reactor to be gone so it can proceed with its economic growth, unencumbered by the reality or perception of a nuclear reactor being located on one of its most promising sites for redevelopment.

Federal, state and local officials need to step up their pressure on RPI and the federal government to finally get this done.

 
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