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Decommissioning UB's Buffalo Materials Research Center

Frequently Asked Questions

Published December 4, 2012

What does “decommissioning” of a nuclear facility mean?

The activities of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) include decommissioning nuclear facilities.

Decommissioning is the process of safely closing a nuclear power plant (or other facility where nuclear materials are handled) to retire it from service after its useful life has ended.

This process primarily involves decontaminating the facility to reduce residual radioactivity and then releasing the property for unrestricted or (under certain conditions) restricted use. This often includes dismantling the facility or dedicating it to other purposes. Decommissioning begins after the nuclear fuel and loose radioactive waste are removed.

For more information on the NRC’s decommissioning process, go to http://www.nrc.gov.

What is the scope of the University at Buffalo project?

UB is in the final stage of a process to remove contaminated materials from its former nuclear reactor facility (known as the Buffalo Materials Research Center), demolish the building and verify decontamination of the soil around and underneath the site.

The Buffalo Materials Research Center (BMRC) is located on UB’s South Campus. See campus map: http://www.buffalo.edu/buildings/building?id=bmrc

During this final stage of decommissioning, the university will safely remove from the building equipment and materials that were contaminated with radioactive material when the facility was in operation.   The building will then be demolished and water tanks and contaminated soil underneath it will be removed.

When the process concludes in 2014, the site will be free of radioactive contamination, and it will be returned to a green field.

Similar projects were undertaken in recent years at Cornell University, the University of Michigan and other university-based research reactor facilities.

Is there still nuclear fuel in the facility

No.  The facility’s radioactive fuel was completely removed in 2005 as part of the facility’s decommissioning process. 

Why is UB taking down the facility?

The facility’s nuclear reactor has not been in operation 1994 and the facility’s radioactive fuel was completely removed in 2005.   The university was not performing sufficient research involving nuclear materials to warrant maintaining such a facility.  

UB received permission from federal and state authorities to take down the building and return the site to a green field. 

What was the facility used for?

It was built in 1961 and was mainly used for isotope production and materials testing.  It was last operated in 1994.

Why not rehabilitate and reuse the facility instead of taking it down?

This option was considered by the university.  An extensive analysis determined it is far too costly to rehabilitate the facility. The building’s structural components would need to be scraped and nearly completely torn away before the facility could be rebuilt.  It is more efficient to take down the building.

What are the risks to the campus and the community as UB removes materials contaminated by radiation?

The health risks are minimal.  A person passing by the demolition site will not receive any additional radiation exposure than what occurs normally in the environment.

What kind of contaminated materials are being removed from the facility?

Research equipment used when the facility was in operation will be removed as well as the facility’s heating and cooling system.  Water from reactor tanks and the tanks themselves also will be removed.  Steel and concrete from the demolished facility will be removed, as will contaminated soil and bedrock from the facility site.

There are six underground storage tanks ranging in size from 250 to 10,000 gallons and one 10,000 gallon above-ground tank. These tanks will be emptied and sent for disposal. Onsite cleaning may be performed prior to transportation depending on contamination levels and waste costs.

What will be done with contaminated materials removed from the facility and site?

All contaminated waste will be safely shipped to appropriate disposal facilities outside of New York State.

Is there contamination of the groundwater surrounding the site?

No.  An analysis of the site has determined there is no contamination to groundwater underneath the building.

Is there radioactive contamination of the site outside the building’s boundaries?

No. An analysis of the site did not discover any radioactive contamination beyond the boundaries of the physical building.

What safety measures are in place?

All activities will be performed under the strict NRC decommissioning guidelines for which the university will be responsible.

When radioactive materials are removed from the building and staged outside for transport, health physicists will ensure that radiation levels are within federal guidelines. When work activities inside facility are undertaken, air and water from the work site will be monitored and/or filtered per the requirements of the decommissioning plan.

Will there be any airborne discharges of radioactivity or releases of dust during the project that could pose an offsite hazard?

No. Except for demolition of the building, all air discharged from the facility will be filtered as necessary in a manner similar to an asbestos work area.

What types of construction activities and noise are expected from this project?

Except for the demolition of the building, the process will go almost unnoticed even by faculty, staff, students and community members who are within sight of the facility. There will be occasional trucks making deliveries and pickups, mobilization of construction trailers, etc.  The university will take steps to minimize noise, dust and vibration resulting from the building’s demolition.

Who will oversee the day-to-day decommissioning process?

The decommissioning project will be a campus-led project managed by UB's Facilities Planning and Design group. Special consultants will be brought in to handle specific phases of work for which little local expertise exists.

How does the NRC regulate and control the decommissioning process?

The NRC’s inspector will be on site frequently and during significant project milestones to ensure that guidelines are being met.

To what standard will the BMRC site be cleaned?

After the building is dismantled and all contaminated materials are removed, the site will be returned to a green field.  The NRC will perform a final inspection and declare the site is clean and in compliance with guidelines developed by the NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency.

What is the cost for this project?

New York State provided funding to UB’s capital plan to pay for the project.  There is no funding from other sources.  It is estimated that the entire decommissioning process will cost about $20 million.

How will the community be informed and involved in the decommissioning process?

The university will hold public meetings to update the campus and community about progress made during decommissioning.  UB’s Office of University Communications will notify the public of these meetings through news releases distributed to news media, mailings to neighborhoods near the South Campus and notices posted to university websites.