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9 December 2019

The Auburn (Nuclear?) Family

Back in May I wrote about the demolition of Allison Hall on the Auburn University campus. Allison Hall served as the home of the Physics Department. That department was relocated to the south, to the top of the hill on Duncan Drive. Their new building is the rebuilt Leach Science Center.

Well, actually, the rebuilt and renovated Leach Science Center. See, they didn't completely demolish the old Leach Science Center...

And here I get to write a little conspiratorially.

You see, growing up in Auburn I had always heard (an urban legend?) that there was a nuclear reactor underground at the Leach Science Center. I first heard that rumor sometime in late high school or early college when some guy at a party (who had also grown up in Auburn) mentioned it. It sounded sensational and ridiculous, and, of course, there was no one more qualified at the party to ask for confirmation. We're talking about a building that is in the heart of the campus. A couple blocks from the football stadium, a couple of blocks from the University President's house. It doesn't look like there's a nuclear reactor in the area. The building, in fact, was completely nondescript; it was ugly.

And c'mon... really? A nuclear reactor?!

But I never forgot the comment from that partygoer.

Then, a few years ago (decades after first hearing these rumors) the proposal to relocate the Physics Department to the Leach site was hatched, and I was immediately intrigued when the demolition/construction signs went up and the old building was officially slated for "demolition and renovation". Why not just tear the whole, old, ugly building? Why "renovate" part of it, why not tear the whole thing down? Maybe there's something down there that is too difficult to remove/replace/rebuild?

I actually ran into a friend of mine who works in the administration of Auburn University (like, in the main admin building), and casually asked him (as casually as one can ask), "hey, is there a nuclear reactor at Leach?". His answer was, "no." He said that the new building would have physics labs underground, but that physicists actually liked underground laboratories, because it minimized vibrations. But was there a nuclear reactor? No.

Hmm... I was not convinced. But I did not press the subject. Maybe he didn't know the truth? Maybe he wasn't supposed to tell the truth? Anyway, the "no" answer was a check mark against this urban legend.

But then, in spring of 2019 I was at another University event and overheard someone comment something like, "... well, ya know, if they'd been completely upfront about the building they were working on, the whole project would have gone faster..."

My interest was piqued, so I interrupted with: "are you talking about the Leach Building project?" (which did seem to be dragging on a little longer than would be usual).

"Yeah," she replied.

"What are you referring to?" I pressed. "Is there something nuclear there?"

"Yes, there is... and it's slowing down the work crews, because they have to be so careful around it." I think she mentioned her husband was somehow "in the know" about this.

I was ecstatic. This was the first time in decades that I'd ever heard someone bring this up. Of course, it was still all just rumors and hearsay, but I was more intrigued than ever.

And more atomic-talk came up later that year. A friend and fellow Auburnite was visiting me in fall 2019 (she and her husband were going to a home football game), and when I brought the topic up she was quick to say, "yes, we all grew up referring to that as 'the nuclear building', I never even knew it was called 'Leach'". Her husband (not a native Auburnite) was skeptical: "c'mon, they'd have to have permits, there'd have to be signs."

Even my mother commented that decades ago she knew a woman who was a physicist who was quite proud to say she worked at Leach Center in some nuclear-related capacity.

But is there are stronger evidence about all of this one way or another?

I think there is.

Firstly, with the renovation and rebuilding of Leach Science Center now complete, there are signs conspicuously posted on the fence that surrounds the older (not-demolished) part of the building:

Even stronger evidence came to light when I actually thought to internet-search the words "Leach", "science center", "nuclear", and "Auburn". This link to The Auburn University Library website comes up.

I haven't actually gone to the library yet to review the actual documents, but the Description of the resource on that page seems to definitively confirm that there is a nuclear reactor of some size on the site.

Some intrepid student reporter for the university paper should do an investigative exposť on all of this...

Topics: auburn_university


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