Nuclear Cambridge

Courtesy of Robert E. Zimmerman

Nuclear scan of a mouse.

Unless you read the yellow caution signs on the walls, the high-ceilinged chamber would appear to house a couple of drab concrete-walled rooms surrounded by a disorganized jumble of machinery, file cabinets, and multicolored plastic bins. But buried deep inside this apparent mess is a one and a half foot by two foot aluminum container that generates nearly six million watts of energy per second.

MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, which has been in operation since 1958, runs a reactor that produces energy through the fission of highly-enriched uranium. It is one of the few university-run nuclear reactors in the United States, and is the hub of the Cambridge area’s experimental nuclear research. The laboratory’s powder blue containment dome—strong enough to withstand the head-on impact of a Boeing 747—is nestled between MIT’s academic buildings, a mere five minute walk from the Charles River. (The reactor is accessible via appointment, although the superintendent and associate directors declined to comment for this article.)

Back at Harvard, there’s no reactor. The University’s experimental nuclear research is located at the Medical School, where two-inch-long mice receive injections of radio-pharmaceuticals intended to reveal the presence of millimeter-wide tumors. At Harvard proper, the locus of nuclear operations is housed in offices in the depths of the Kennedy School devoted to managing the immense power present behind the closed doors of reactors like the one down Mass. Ave.

“We’re working with telephones and pieces of paper,” says Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

The papers are the last component of the Harvard-MIT nuclear triangle—another corner across the river at the Med school, another at the silent but potent reactor itself. This is the way Cambridge’s nuclear world exists: hidden in plain sight, quiet and unassuming.


Ninety-two protons, 92 electrons, and 143 neutrons. These particles are the components of uranium-235, an element that revolutionized science and transformed modern warfare. In the late 1930s and 40s, the United States invested billions in the Manhattan Project, a nuclear development program dedicated to researching highly-enriched uranium and developing the first atomic bomb.

Paul M. Doty, one of the last surviving participants in the Project, has remained involved in the field of nuclear research, turning his focus towards preventing nuclear war. The legacy of the Manhattan Project is a complicated one, its name forever tied to the destruction caused by Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs that were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the aftermath of such destruction, in the midst of the Cold War, Doty founded what is now the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, in 1973.

“He wanted to create a center that was to train the next generation of people trying to reduce nuclear dangers,” says Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

The Belfer Center did just that, carrying on the tradition of nuclear cooperation and caution first called for by Albert Einstein and his associates in a manifesto published in 1955. The manifesto led to the first of the Pugwash Conferences on such issues, which continue to this day. Doty is the last living member of the founding Pugwash Conference.

Although the Belfer Center was established primarily to address nuclear threats, its focus has broadened over the years to include topics such as economics, climate change, and international relations. The division currently dedicated to nuclear policy research is titled “Managing the Atom” and focuses on nuclear energy as well as on nuclear terrorism and proliferation—concerns that have become more serious in the two decades since the Soviet Union collapsed.

“With the demise of the Soviet Union and the consequence—increased spread of nuclear weapons—nuclear proliferation became a more salient issue,” says William H. Tobey, a senior fellow at the Center whose primary task is to lead a U.S.-Russia initiative to reduce nuclear terrorism. He also teaches a course on nuclear arms control, “Controlling Weapons Proliferation,” which is one of very few classes on nuclear policy offered at Harvard.

The Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, as well as a tremendous supply of highly-enriched uranium, according to Bunn, and in the 1990s there were a number of thefts of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium: bomb-making material. Additionally, the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 raised global concern about terrorism, specifically nuclear attacks, and led to more aggressive international action in the Middle East to prevent proliferation.

“I think the greatest danger is that someone will become a weapons state. Another weapons state,” says Richard C. Lanza, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

In that vein, President Obama has taken a very proactive stance towards the spread of nuclear weapons. “Obama, during the campaign, said that we really ought to secure all nuclear material around the world within four years, and that was actually the goal that I had first proposed in these ‘Securing the Bomb’ reports,”  Bunn says. “Securing the Bomb” is a series of annual reports written by Bunn that discusses nuclear threats.