Visiting the neighborhood nuclear reactor

Reporter's Notebook: A tour at the Soreq Experimental Nuclear Reactor was just like the kind on which Ahmadinejad leads the media every once in a while in Iran.

Centrifuges Natanz 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Centrifuges Natanz 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I have always been a sucker for a field trip.
Some of my warmest memories of youth have to do with group outings, be it a class field trip to the Denver Museum of Natural History to see exhibits of stuffed buffaloes and Rocky Mountain Elk, or a camp outing to the Lay’s Potato Chip factory, or college romps to the Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado.
Obviously, the favorite part of each outing was the free samples at the end – a free bag of chips from Lay’s, or a mug of beer from Coors.
So it was with childlike enthusiasm that I accepted an invitation for a briefing and tour on Tuesday with other journalists at the Soreq Experimental Nuclear Reactor near Yavne.
Wow, a real nuclear reactor, just like in the movies. A tour just like the kind on which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leads the media every once in a while in Iran.
I’ll be making family history – the first Keinon to ever visit a reactor.
I look good in white, I joked to one of my kids before leaving early in the morning, imagining wearing one of those white gowns and little white caps like the kind that the cafeteria ladies in junior high school wear, asking their charges if they want gravy on their mashed potatoes.
Unfortunately we didn’t get to don those white gowns or wear any protective headgear.
I also didn’t see any digital clock with red numbers like in the movies, though there was a bright orange light over the metal door to the reactor itself, giving the whole scene at least some sense of celluloid authenticity.
Nevertheless, a visit to a nuclear reactor in this country is – at the risk of sounding like one of those kids on the lunchroom line – pretty cool.
Actually what is so nifty is not so much what you see. The reactor was not working when we visited, there were no spinning centrifuges like in Iran, and when you look down into the heart of the reactor from the control tower above, all you see is water and tubes.
Rather, the cool part is the idea of being able to look at all; the idea that you are in a very restricted area, a place not everyone can enter.
Moreover, seeing is understanding, or at least understanding better. Not blessed with much of a scientific mind, it has always been kind of tough for me to wrap my brain around concepts like splitting atoms, fissile material or enriched uranium.
I’ve been writing a lot of late about Iran wanting to enrich uranium without understanding much about the physics of it all. Now I have a better rudimentary handle. When you are at a reactor and hear even a brief explanation from a scientist on the site, the eyes glaze less at the details, and it all makes a bit more sense. Not complete sense, but a degree of sense.
I now understand that if you enrich uranium to 93 percent (weapons grade), you have more U isotopes that are capable of sustaining a chain reaction of nuclear fission.
Got that? And with this new knowledge of the reactor comes new concerns. For instance, the scientist giving us our short tour could not get a projector in the briefing room to turn off, nor could he get the lights deep down in the bowels of the reactor – down there under the water and near the rods – to turn on. And if that didn’t work, thought I, what else is not functioning at the plant? As for the souvenir that ends every field trip, what we got at the end of this one was neither potato chips nor beer, but rather a group photo – still to be sent – in front of a gnarly, knotted, stately, old olive tree in the courtyard of the building housing the reactor.
The tree is not really that old, the scientist leading our tour said, it just looks that way because it is watered with water from the reactor.
“Really?” asked one of the journalists who actually has a good grip on all the nuclear information.
“No,” said the grinning scientist, pleased once again at being able to get mileage out of that old nuclear reactor joke. Ah, those nuclear scientists – such cards.