MIT reactor tour: back to the Nuclear Age

The MIT reactor control room

The MIT reactor control room (Photo: Boston Globe)

My dad and I got to join a tour of MITR-II, the research reactor that MIT has maintained in one form or another on campus since 1958. It was an unbelievable step back in time to an  era when Nuclear was king. The analog stuff in this joint is beyond belief! Not just the control room, with paper reports to be filled out daily, but the airlock doors, the Eye-Ease Green paint  on every surface, and the ancient schoolhouse chairs we sat in for our briefing were all seemingly from a retro sci-fi movie. On a campus where all the new buildings exude the techno cool you associate with the Apple Store, the relic status of Building NW12 is a palpable statement about which sorts of science and engineering have been tops on the priority list lately.

Not so very different from the real control room...

Not so very different from the real control room…

This out-of-time quality for nuclear research was striking in so many ways. Sad, in the sense that you can sense so many possibilities with a bit more focus on this area (not to say it isn’t getting its Federal research $$, just that it has been stigmatized in the popular imagination). The tour guides noted that the MIT reactor supports research towards much safer and more efficient reactor designs. In the archaic control room and in using the Geiger counter after entering the reactor area, I was also reminded of the pervasive fear of nuclear war when I was growing up. The idea of an 18 year old MIT undergrad at the helm of the reactor brought to mind the leaked reports recently that Air Force officers in the Minuteman silos in North Dakota had been caught repeatedly napping while the door of their control capsule was open, or the scary new book on “broken arrow” nuclear weapons accidents by the Fast Food Nation guy. Those nukes are still in the silos, at the ready.

Humans are pretty weak reeds to be entrusted with the keys to the destruction of the whole world. Some say the world will end in fire, and being in the reactor was a strange reminder of how in a few short years we have moved from assuming the fire will be delivered by a bomb with a crazed officer in the saddle to, now, believing it will be simmered up under the carbonous lid of our atmosphere. The great thing about being at MIT is you can at times feel hopeful that people might be able to intervene in humanity’s bumbling towards immolation.

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