Local officials are confident a small nuclear reactor that has been in Schenectady since the 1950s will be decommissioned and moved off a 60-acre site being considered for a casino.
But the owner of the reactor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is less confident — at least publicly.
The American Locomotive Co. built the reactor in the 1950s on the banks of the Mohawk River at its site off Erie Boulevard. It transferred ownership in 1964 to RPI, which began using the reactor as hands-on learning experience, research and training for students in its newly established nuclear engineering program. At maximum capacity it produces 10 watts of electricity — not even enough to power a light bulb.
Three years ago, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed RPI’s license to operate the facility through 2031. Ever since, city officials have tried to convince RPI to move it, worried it might negatively affect redevelopment plans for the site, which include condos, apartments, at least one hotel, commercial space, a harbor and — they hope — a $300 million casino announced this week.
In a statement issued Wednesday to The Daily Gazette, RPI said any redevelopment of the site would be done “in concert with the continued presence” of the reactor. Not so, according to two high-ranking Schenectady officials.
In fact, Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen was so surprised by the response that he reached out to RPI directly for clarification.
“That’s not what’s happening,” he said. “They are doing a closure study.”
An RPI spokesman confirmed the next day that he was putting together a “revised statement” — but as of Friday evening, none had been issued. He declined to comment on why or how the statement would be revised.
Mayor Gary McCarthy, who first publicly advocated for the reactor’s decommissioning in 2011, said he hasn’t spoken with RPI recently, but that based on previous discussions, he had reason to believe the reactor wouldn’t be staying.
“RPI has made commitments to move in a direction consistent with what we want for the site,” he said, adding that what he wants for the site is for the reactor to be decommissioned.
Before that can happen, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must review and approve a decommissioning plan, A regional NRC spokesman said Thursday the agency has not received such a plan from RPI.
Retired RPI professor Don Steiner believes it could be a simple question of where to send the nuclear fuel that has held the university back from decommissioning it all these years. He joined the staff in 1981 and went on to head the nuclear engineering department before retiring in 2008. On multiple occasions during his time there, he said RPI considered decommissioning the reactor and even completed preliminary studies and paperwork the NRC requires.
The stumbling block, he said, was finding a place to dispose of the fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the fuel, told Steiner and his staff that they couldn’t take the fuel back because of a backlog of fuel acceptance orders and lack of storage space. The Energy Department did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
If RPI wanted to move forward with the decommissioning anyway, it could have, Steiner said, but it would have been responsible for moving and storing the fuel itself.
There are 31 research and test reactors in operation across the country today — RPI’s reactor is the only one left in New York state. Another 11 such reactors are currently being decommissioned or are awaiting decommissioning.
During Steiner’s tenure, RPI wasn’t under the public pressure it has seen in recent years to decommission, even as universities elsewhere across the country began shutting down their reactors due to the negative perceptions surrounding anything nuclear-related.
In fact, Steiner said, it seemed like Schenectady didn’t even know the reactor was there all those years — at least not until plans to redevelop the Alco site became a reality. After years of demolition, environmental cleanup and infrastructure work, construction could finally begin on the site this year, though it’s been delayed on several occasions in the past.
The Galesi Group’s David Buicko said he’s prepared to design around the reactor, which has every legal right to stay there until 2031.
“That’s phase II of our site anyway,” he said.
The reactor clearly hasn’t dissuaded developers and companies from wanting to occupy the site. The chairman of Rush Street Gaming, a Chicago developer that builds and operates casinos, was greeted with rabid fanfare when he arrived in Schenectady this week to announce a plan for a casino at the Alco site.
Local officials say other potential tenants haven’t been scared off by the reactor. Still, McCarthy said he wants it out to prevent even the possibility that someone will be scared off. He said it doesn’t add anything to the site.
“It’s a big tinker toy, and it’s not necessarily the state-of-the-art facility that they would like as part of their engineering program,” he said.
Steiner takes issue with such a characterization. From the outside, the small boxy reactor may not appear state-of-the-art, but it has received upgrades over the years and to this day is one of the few remaining places in the country for nuclear engineering students to get hands-on experience in planning, radiation protection and more.
If the reactor were to go, RPI could build a simulation lab, but that would hardly be the same, he said.
“I think many of the universities that have closed down their reactors regret it,” he said. “We were, in a way, somewhat envied by other programs because we still had this facility. It would be a loss. The students loved it.”