When the Idaho State Journal and the Associated Press reported last week that Idaho State University in Pocatello could lose its nuclear program if legislators pass a bill to allow guns on campus, the news wire and social media hummed with the revelation.
Problem is, the story’s not exactly accurate and no one wants to take blame for misleading the public on the volatile issue.
After meeting with college Republicans in Pocatello last week, Gov. Butch Otter set off a chain reaction in the media when he announced that the school’s president, Arthur Vailas, had informed the governor that ISU could lose its nuclear research and engineering program if the Legislature passes a bill to allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry firearms on campus.
The hook was that simple in the press: Pass the bill and endanger the program.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Otter was reportedly told by Vailas, has a “zero-tolerance policy” pertaining to weapons at research facilities the agency regulates.
“I had never heard that before,” Otter said, according to the Idaho State Journal, the first publication out of the gate with the story.
The Associated Press then rewrote the Idaho State Journal’s piece, giving Otter the credit for the pronouncement of the threatened nuke program. The Idaho Democratic Party quickly jumped in on the action, hoping that the potential loss of an economic driver in the eastern part of the state might sway Otter and lawmakers to back off the bill.
In the flurry of all this, some missed an important question: Are there campuses out there that allow guns and have nuclear reactors?
The answer? Yes. And not that far from ISU’s main campus in Pocatello.
Just more than three hours south of Pocatello, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, due to state law, allows concealed weapons on campus. The school also boasts a nuclear engineering program and a reactor licensed by the NRC.
If the University of Utah makes it work, can ISU?
It is doable, Adrienne King, director of communications and marketing for ISU, told IdahoReporter.com The college is now doing research to determine exactly how much it would need to fork out for upgraded security to meet NRC regulations.
Yet, the rhetoric coming from the campus is far less dire than the headlines offered in the media last week.
“President Valias told the governor that if the university did not comply with the necessary regulations we could lose our license to conduct nuclear research,” King wrote in an email. “As a result, the university is assessing the costs and developing plans to ensure compliance should SB 1254 (concealed carry bill) become law.”
Howard Grimes, the school’s vice president for research and development, said in a prepared statement that the college is prepared to take the “necessary steps” to ensure NRC compliance, but couldn’t offer a dollar figure for the changes.
The issue isn’t, then, so much about possibly losing a nuclear research program and millions of dollars of future investments, as it is about the school asking the state for money to meet the NRC guidelines.
Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman, told IdahoReporter.com that the Associated Press botched the story and that Vailas, not the governor, is the source of the speculation about the nuclear program.
“It was President Vailas who raised this issue as a concern with the governor when he was visiting with him in Pocatello last week,”
Hanian said. “The suggestion that ISU could lose its NRC license came from President Vailas who suggested to the governor that was a possibility. The governor repeated what the president told him the very next day on campus and expressed his concerns about it at subsequent meetings.”
Hanian said that his office is doing its “due diligence” to investigate Vailas’ concerns as the debate on the bill continues.