Omaha's secret nuclear reactor

A nuclear reactor operated by the VA Medical Center in Omaha from 1959 to 2001 is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country inside a hospital.

Either this year or next, all its pieces will be gone for good.

By Steve Liewer / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, January 31, 2015

In the jittery days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, those tasked with keeping America safe suddenly saw threats everywhere.

Federal aviation officials grounded every airplane. Uniformed officers ringed Memorial Stadium during Husker football games. Governors smothered power plants and dams with armies of guards.

As the federal Department of Veterans Affairs looked for its own weak spots, its leaders found a glaring one right here in Omaha: an active nuclear reactor in the basement of the VA Medical Center.

Known by few Omahans, it had long been a valuable tool for VA medical researchers, and was believed to be the only one of its kind in any hospital in America.

But viewed through a post-9/11 prism, the blue glow of the reactor’s cooling pool now looked like terrorist bait.


Dr. Debra Romberger, associate chief of staff, now oversees the unused reactor. PHOTO BY KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

This is the strange story of Omaha’s nuclear reactor, which still sits, though dormant, inside the VA facility near 42nd and Center Streets.

VA researchers who were both visionary and well-connected first brought the facility here in the 1950s. It kept running past its prime because of budgetary inertia.

Now, finally, it’s about to be put to rest.

For decades the reactor fueled cutting-edge medicine at the VA, said Dr. Debra Romberger, the hospital’s associate chief of staff for research, and the reactor’s chief overseer. But that has changed.

“It’s not something we need anymore, because the technology has moved on,” she said. “Now it’s time for it to be gone.”

VA officials are preparing to dismantle the reactor and ship its pieces — some still mildly radioactive — out of state for disposal. Last week they chose a contractor to do the work.

As nuclear reactors go, the VA’s device is tiny.

Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant, for example, can generate up to 500 megawatts of power. That’s 25,000 times more than the VA’s reactor, which might not even produce enough to power one floor of the 11-story hospital.

But the VA reactor’s purpose was never to generate electricity. It was installed in 1959 as part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, a Cold War-era campaign to promote positive uses for nuclear technology.

The room containing the Omaha VA Medical Center's nuclear reactor at the time it was opened, in 1959. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

Under the program, the government built nuclear-power and research reactors in countries friendly to the United States. Dozens were also built within the United States, mostly at major universities.

Dr. Lynell Klassen oversaw the nuclear reactor when it was in use. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

But the VA wanted a reactor of its own. Dr. Richard E. Ogborn, then the director of a radioisotope laboratory at Omaha’s Veterans Hospital, wanted it here — and he had the contacts in Washington, D.C., to get it done.

The origins are a bit murky, said Dr. Lynell Klassen, a VA professor of internal medicine and the hospital’s former associate chief of staff. But the story he’s heard is that the reactor was slated for export to France until a friendly congressman intervened.

“Someone called somebody, and they put it here,” Klassen said.

It cost $200,000 — equal to about $1.6 million in today’s dollars.

At the time, nuclear medicine seemed to the medical community like an uncharted frontier with limitless potential for diagnosing diseases and treating cancer, among other things.

“The unit was used for doing very hard-core, basic, hot-atom chemistry,” Klassen said.

John Lear, the American correspondent for a British journal called the New Scientist, wrote in late 1959 that the reactor beneath the Omaha VA hospital “glow(ed) with an aura of special promise.”

“This medical instrument of the atom age,” Lear added, “is the most pregnant scientific development that I know of across the whole vast flatness of the Midwestern plains.”

San Diego-based General Atomics built the TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) reactor. Dr. Edward Teller — known as the “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb” — led the effort to develop a reactor that could safely be used in universities and research institutes.

The blue glow of Cherenkov radiation in the pool of a TRIGA nuclear reactor of the same type as one that operated beneath the Omaha VA Medical Center. PHOTO BY NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION

The TRIGA reactor was designed to shut down automatically if the reactor overheated. Several dozen of them are still operating in the United States.

“Absolute safety is hard,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists. “But they’re very low-risk.”

The Omaha reactor became a mecca for members of the VA’s research division, which Romberger said complements but is separate from the VA’s medical-care mission.

“It’s not what people think of when they think of the VA,” she said. “They think of patients. And that’s good.”

Over the years, the reactor was used as part of research into a link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, selenium deficiency in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and vanadium as a low-cost treatment for diabetes.

“We could have never done these studies anywhere else in the country,” Klassen said. “There were, unfortunately, no big breakthroughs. But we did publish a lot of papers.”

Aside from some medical researchers, Nebraskans barely knew it existed. Romberger said researchers would sometimes draw startled looks when they told visitors their laboratory was “downstairs, next to the nuclear reactor.”

At a 2009 U.S. Senate hearing held at the Omaha VA Medical Center, then-Sen. Mike Johanns joked about the facility.

“I was amazed to find that there is a defunct nuclear reactor in the basement,” he said. “I don’t want to try to scare anybody. Don’t ask for a Geiger counter or anything.”

Drs. John Matoole, left, and E.A. Novak display a scanner used to trace pictures of organs that absorbed small doses of radio isotopes on Jan. 23, 1966. WORLD-HERALD PHOTO

Klassen said the reactor continued to produce useful research through the 1990s, though it ceased to be a cutting-edge tool as other technologies bypassed it.

“It was state-of-the-art until about 1995,” he said.

At that point, Klassen said, the VA faced the choice of spending about $200,000 a year to keep the reactor running or an estimated $5 million to shut it down. So the reactor stayed open.

The calculus changed, though, after 9/11. As part of a governmentwide assessment of potential terrorist targets, Klassen said, the VA looked at all of its facilities. The Omaha reactor topped the list.

“The concern was that someone could steal those fuel rods and make a dirty bomb,” Klassen said. “Congress decided to rapidly shut it down. It was done incredibly quietly.”

Lochbaum said the risk of a terrorist act at the Omaha facility probably was never huge. Other research reactors that actually produced bomb-grade uranium would have been likelier targets.

“The best protection they had was anonymity,” Lochbaum said. “Terrorists can’t attack something they don’t know about.”

Nevertheless, the reactor blinked off on Nov. 5, 2001. Its blue glow — created when charged particles move through the pool’s super-purified water faster than the speed of light — finally ceased.

Even then, the VA faced responsibilities. It had to maintain its operating license as long as the reactor’s remnants remained. It also had to monitor the space and file frequent reports with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The reactor core sans fuel rods. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

The first job was to dispose of 58 radioactive fuel rods. The proposed federal nuclear-waste disposal site in Nevada had been stalled by lawsuits.

Finally, in 2002, a U.S. Geological Survey research reactor in Denver agreed to take the rods. They were shipped inside multilayered containers, like Russian nesting dolls.

VA administrators removed the rods on a weekend to minimize disruption at the hospital, choosing a time when they knew the attention of many Omahans would be diverted.

“The fuel was moved, very quietly, during the College World Series,” Klassen said.

With the fuel rods long gone, what’s left are a few pieces of equipment once used to handle radioisotopes, as well as some lead and steel pieces of the reactor itself. For all these years, the reactor has been bathed in water at the bottom of the 20-foot pool.

“The fuel is out. So are the ion chambers. But the rest of it is still there,” said Dan McVicker, the reactor manager. “Most of the stuff is really low level.”

The unused nuclear reactor in the basement of the VA Medical Center on Jan. 27, 2015. PHOTO BY KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

Still, dismantling the reactor is a delicate operation, planned for late this year or in 2016. Consultants have laid out a timeline that stretches over 12 weeks, and there will be mountains of paperwork before and after. The process will cost more than $1.3 million, on top of $5.9 million Klassen said was spent on the 2001-02 shutdown and fuel-rod disposal.

The control console in the unused room that holds the unused reactor. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

The reactor space, with the adjacent lab, isn’t much larger than the basement of a suburban house. Consultants have checked it several times for traces of radiation. They’ve found very little.

According to a decommissioning report prepared last year, only trace amounts of radioactive isotopes — including Carbon-14, Cesium-137, Nickel-63 and Cobalt-60 — were found on the surface of the reactor pool bed and some dummy fuel rods put in place of the real ones.

The highest concentrations were inside a lab hood where technicians once worked on lab samples. Three soil borings outside the reactor pool show no trace of radioactivity. There’s no groundwater nearby.

Daniel McVicker, electronics technician, with the reactor core in the basement of the VA Medical Center. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

The decommissioning process gained some urgency because of the VA’s plans to tear down the 65-year-old hospital and replace it.

“We’re an aging facility,” McVicker said. “Better now than waiting.”

They dismissed the idea of entombing the area in concrete — as was done with a 1960s experimental reactor at Hallam, Nebraska — because the tomb would require continual monitoring, and the site couldn’t later be used for anything else.

After the pieces of the reactor itself are packed up in safe containers, well-protected workers will grind off some of the surface of the reactor and pool bed to haul away. Consultants expect about 42 cubic yards of debris — about enough to fill a large construction dumpster.

Then the area will be scrubbed clean and remodeled for other uses. The VA will surrender its license and get out of the nuclear reactor business for good.

After more than a half century without an accident, release or spill, the VA’s nuclear reactor turned out to be a good neighbor to an Omaha community that didn’t even know it was there.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1186,

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