BYU once housed underground nuclear reactor

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Many students have heard of elaborate tunnels connecting each building on BYU campus. Some of the rumors are true. One such tunnel led to an underground nuclear reactor.

In 1967 BYU purchased a 10-watt L77 research reactor and installed it in B64, a building which has since been demolished. B64, also known as the nuclear lab, was situated on campus underneath the hill just south of the testing center and the Karl G. Maeser Building.

Edwin Jackson, BYU’s research safety officer, worked on decommissioning the reactor. He said the top of the nuclear lab was actually part of BYU’s south hill.

“Down the hill from the testing center and across the little bike path you [would find] the roof of B64,” Jackson said. “That’s where the reactor was.”

Ron Emery, a BYU OIT technician, said he had been to the lab and it was well hidden.

“It was back in the hill so much that people would walk down the roads and down the stairways and they would walk right past it,” Emery said.

Emery said there was a utility tunnel running from underneath the Maeser building to the nuclear lab. He said he visited the nuclear lab about 15 years ago. It was a small, concrete walled area about 50 feet by 50 feet. It was partitioned into three rooms and each room had walls about two feet thick.

Jackson said the reactor was installed for the nuclear physics and nuclear engineering departments.

“[The reactor was] built specifically to teach nuclear engineers with a very safe reactor,” Jackson said.

The L-77 nuclear reactor was intended primarily as a training reactor at a minimum research facility. Its core was a 12-inch diameter sphere made of stainless steel, according to a document from the Second United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.

Jackson said the nuclear reactor was decommissioned because there was a shortage of students in BYU’s nuclear programs. He thinks one reason there was a shortage was because, in 1979, news of Three Mile Island had just shocked the nation. One reactor on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had a core meltdown, which created fear the whole area of Pennsylvania would become contaminated.

BYU’s low- and high-level waste was shipped off and the nuclear reactor had been completely decommissioned and disassembled by 1992. The nuclear lab continued to exist until 2009 when it, along with a few houses on the south side of campus, was demolished.

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