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UB outlines plans to demolish former nuclear research reactor


Published January 13, 2013

Roughly 45 people attended a discussion last week in Allen Hall about how UB plans to demolish a shuttered nuclear research reactor on the South Campus.

The meeting was led by David R. Vasbinder, associate director of environment, health and safety services.

Vasbinder explained how the facility—officially called the Buffalo Materials Research Center—opened in 1960 during the height of the atomic age at a cost of $1.15 million. Researchers used it to test materials used for medicine, commercial energy and other purposes.

UB mothballed the reactor, located in a white circular building between Kapoor and Clark halls near Winspear Avenue, in 1994, said Vasbinder, who also serves as director of the research reactor.

Working with local, state and federal agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Departmen of Energy, UB removed all radioactive nuclear fuel from the building in 2005. It will start removing leftover contaminated materials next month and eventually demolish the building, an effort expected to conclude in 2014 and cost $20 million.

When the project is finished, the site will be free of radioactive contamination and it will be returned to a green field, Vasbinder said.

Working with consulting firm ENERCON Services Inc. and other contractors, UB will send the building’s heating and ventilation system, reactor tanks and other contaminated materials to an out-of-state, federally approved disposal site. UB then will raze the 24,698-square-foot building, part of which has concrete walls that are several feet thick.

Responding to a question from the audience, Vasbinder said that faculty, students and staff on the South Campus, as well as nearby University Heights residents, may feel sporadic vibrations for approximately a month when the building is torn down. UB will do its best to notify the surrounding community of the work, he said.

A fence will be placed around the building while the work is being done and university police will regularly patrol the area, he said.

Vasbinder also fielded questions about how UB will dispose of six underground water tanks and the water inside the tanks. Radioactive contamination levels in the water are low enough to be safely and legally discharged into Buffalo’s sewer system, he said. As an extra precaution, though, UB will work with the Buffalo Sewer Authority to test the water numerous times before disposing it, he added.

The tanks will be sent to an out-of-state disposal site, he said.

Audience members also asked why UB chose to demolish the building instead of repurposing it. Repurposing the building would require significant investment because it isn’t up to modern building codes, Vasbinder said. UB instead will turn the building’s footprint into a green field, a more cost-efficient alternative, he said.

UB is working with a university archivist to save a sculpture outside the building.

Robert Baier, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Oral Diagnostic Sciences, School of Dental Medicine, recommended against closing the facility, arguing that it could be used to test and develop pharmaceutical drugs.

Another audience member asked if UB had conducted an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, to consider how the demolition will affect the surrounding area, such as the peregrine falcon nest in the tower of the nearby MacKay Heating Plant. Vasbinder said that while an EIS is not required, UB is working with a numerous government organizations, including the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Health, to ensure the project is conducted in a safe and responsible manner.