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So, Kodak -- about that nuclear reactor in your basement

It seems that, until 2006, Kodak had a basement that housed a nuclear reactor, complete with a cache of weapons-grade uranium. How did the company get away with that?

2 min read
A search for "Nuclear Reactor" offers nothing on the Kodak site. Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Corporate America is a place of many layers.

Though fanciful movies made by drug-addled Hollywood directors sometimes suggest that corporations are behind wars, most believe that CEOs are just too harassed to find the time for that sort of action.

And yet, this morning Gizmodo has turned my head toward the explosive reporting of The Democrat and Chronicle, the local newspaper of the Rochester, N.Y., area -- home to Kodak.

This paper reveals that between 1978 and 2006, Kodak had a nuclear reactor. No, not a picture of one. A real one -- albeit a small one intended for research -- housed in its basement.

Surely, you might think that there's some exaggeration here. And yet it seems that this nuclear reactor contained three-and-a-half pounds of enriched uranium. Highly enriched uranium, indeed, which some might describe as "weapons-grade."

I am sure that everyone in Rochester -- not to mention, say, North America -- will be pleased to hear that nothing ever went wrong with this reactor. No leaks. No strange explosions. It apparently bore no responsibility for Kodak's own implosion, either.

Given that it was only dismantled in 2006, though, it is remarkable that few locals -- or, indeed, Kodak employees -- knew anything about this 14x24-foot bunker.

The core of Kodak's need for a reactor was apparently its enthusiasm for neutrons used to analyze the purity of materials and a side interest in neutron radiography, during which materials are photographed without damaging them.

The particular model was a Californium Neutron Flex Multiplier -- unrelated, or so I'm told, to a the much better-known flux capacitor.

Kodak's spokesman, Chris Veronda, told the Democrat and Chronicle: "We decided it was no longer required, as there were alternative and less expensive means to obtain the analytical results."

Veronda also told the Democrat and Chronicle: "This device presented no radiation risk to the public or employees. Radiation from the operation was not detectable outside of the facility."

But if you worked at Kodak, or lived in Rochester, wouldn't you at least have liked to know that there was a little nuclear reactor in your vicinity? I have asked Kodak whether any employees ever voiced their concerns and will update should I hear from the company.

The records of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declare that Kodak was the only industrial company to possess such an interesting device.

The uranium was shipped under conditions of secrecy. As Veronda explained to the Democrat and Chronicle: "The federal authorities oversaw the process and we deferred to them on all matters related to it. Clearly the decision was that it was best not to publicize it."

I have a feeling that inquiring minds might be inquiring: "How did Kodak get what must have been special dispensation to run its own nuclear reactor for 30 years?"

The next questions might be: "Were there other companies in the tech business that tried to get themselves a reactor but couldn't manage it? Or might there be some other secret bunkers whose existence remains largely unknown?"