Schenectady County

In Schenectady, nuclear reactor is an unwelcome tenant

The former Alco site along Erie Boulevard and the Mohawk River is expected to feature several amenit

The former Alco site along Erie Boulevard and the Mohawk River is expected to feature several amenities once its redevelopment is completed. They include condominiums, riverfront access, a marina, retail outlets and a small nuclear reactor.

Well, perhaps not that last item, according to acting Mayor Gary McCarthy.

McCarthy wants Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which owns the low-level reactor and the property on which it sits, to move the reactor out of the city. “I am not sure that is the best place for that facility,” he said Tuesday.

McCarthy is seeking a meeting with RPI officials. “I want to have a constructive dialogue with them,” he said. One scheduled meeting with college representatives has already fallen through, McCarthy said.

Claude Rounds, RPI vice president for administration, said in a prepared statement: “In the near future, we will be meeting with city of Schenectady officials as part of ongoing discussions about the future of the site.” The school had no further comment.

RPI has pegged the cost to deactivate the reactor at $444,000. It uses the facility, called the L. David Walthousen Laboratory, to teach nuclear engineering students the basics of starting and shutting down a reactor. Approximately 50 students and researchers work at the lab, according to the school.

The reactor generates 10 watts of electricity — less than that needed to power a light bulb, Rounds said. It has never had an accident, according to records maintained by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has oversight of the facility.

The school uses four fuel rods, consisting of enriched uranium pellets clad in stainless steel, to run the reactor. The reactor is housed in a 40-by-30-foot room with 12-inch reinforced concrete walls. The roof is covered by 2 inches of lightweight concrete, five plies of felt and asphalt and a gravel surface.

Despite the reactor’s clean safety record, local officials remain concerned about the facility, especially about its proximity to the flood-prone Mohawk River and about the safety of nuclear material stored inside the building. The building’s existing security consists of two chain-link fences, one 30 feet high and one 50 feet high.

When Tropical Storm Irene battered the area, flood waters virtually surrounded the building but did not breach it or reach the reactor, RPI said. The school shut down the reactor before the storm hit, placed nuclear materials in safe storage and secured the lab.

David Buicko, chief operating officer of the Galesi Group, which owns the Alco site, said the company will work around the reactor as part of redevelopment plan. “It will not be a problem. It has been there forever and no one has had any issues with it.”

Galesi is currently stockpiling dirt on the site, in preparation for later spreading it throughout the 66 acres. The remediation plan involves encapsulation of the site to the depth of 4 feet. Encapsulation will require 600,000 cubic yards of fill, weighing approximately 900,000 tons.

Buicko said the facility “is a reactor in name, rather than a reactor in operation. It does have components to convert nuclear material into power, but when you look at and study the amount used, it is not harmful to anyone.”

Joseph Fava, a real estate agent who has sold property in Schenectady County for decades, said a reactor at the site could affect sales. “From a real estate standpoint, would you buy a house or condo next to a nuclear reactor?” he asked. “Whether it’s two light bulbs or Chernobyl, people will have something negative in their minds when they learn it is a nuclear reactor,” he said. “It enhances value with its removal.”

Fava also said the structure should go because it is not aesthetically appropriate for the area. “Every time I drive over Freemans Bridge into Schenectady, I see that big, white building and I say to myself: ‘My God, that has to be moved.’ ”

Rounds said the federal NRC in June renewed the RPI license to operate the reactor through June 2031. The RPI reactor, built in the 1950s and operated by RPI since 1964, is one of just 32 academic research and training reactors licensed by the commission.

Categories: Schenectady County

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