Friday, November 18, 2011

University of Washington's Reactor Site

I think MIT still has a nuclear reactor

Step Into The Uw's Former Nuclear Reactor

Across the street from the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering, the More Hall Annex sits empty. A loud echo reverberates through the cavernous building. The smell of damp concret

Across the street from the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering, the More Hall Annex sits empty. A loud echo reverberates through the cavernous building. The smell of damp concrete permeates the air.
Most of the students who walk by this innocuously named building don't realize that it once held a fully functioning nuclear reactor.
From April 1961 to June 1988, the UW operated a 100-kilowatt Argonaut research reactor, one of about 10 built for research universities in the United States. Designed at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago in the late 1950s and installed with funds from federal grants, the Argonaut reactor was at the center of the UW's nuclear engineering department, an elite graduate-level program, for nearly 30 years.
"For a time, it was a very successful department," said Gene Woodruff, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the UW.
"We thought that we had the best graduate students in the college of engineering," he said. "It was a very exciting field at the time."
After the formal founding of the department in 1965, Woodruff served as an assistant professor and as the assistant director of the reactor program. Although both the department and the program were the brainchild of Dr. Albert Babb, then the chairman, Woodruff would later become the reactor's director in 1970 and then chairman in 1980.
"The reactor ... was simple enough that it made a useful training device in nuclear engineering," he said. As a learning tool, graduate students would attend lab classes at the reactor. "Students were actually able, under the supervision of licensed operators, to take control of the reactor and change power levels and get some feeling for the behavior of the reactor."
The reactor's core was about a cubic meter in size and was surrounded by a block of reinforced concrete 10 feet thick. The reactor was graphite- moderated, meaning graphite blocks were stacked around the core to absorb the neutrons produced by the nuclear fuel. Maneuvering these blocks controlled the reaction.
"The uranium that was in the fuel was enriched uranium ... [I]t had a high percentage of U-235, so it's valuable stuff," Woodruff said.
The fuel took the form of approximately 60-100 enriched uranium-aluminum alloy plates about three feet long, four inches wide and 1/4 of an inch thick. Purified, recirculated tap water flowed in the half-inch spaces between the plates to absorb and take away the relatively low amount of heat produced.
The reactor's other mission, besides training aspiring nuclear engineers, was research, primarily in the form of neutron-activation analysis. This is a technique whereby a sample is irradiated in the reactor's neutron flux, and then the induced radioactivity is examined as a means of detecting the concentration of some element of interest.
Samples of a material were placed in the reactor and radiated. Radiation detectors would count the resulting gamma rays produced by the sample. The elemental composition of the sample could then be determined to parts per billion.
"In some cases, the sensitivity is extraordinary," Woodruff said.
The reactor was not operated around the clock, but rather from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. It was only used for experimentation a few hours a week, as experiments would take time to set up and then dismantle, said William Pat Miller, who came to the UW in 1961 to work on his master's degree in radiological sciences. He then he went to work for the nuclear engineering department, where he continued to work until 1995, serving as the program's last director.
"Especially [in the] 1960s and 1970s, we did a lot of stuff that was pretty new," Miller said. "People were ... very dedicated to their work. It was always fun to help them solve their research problems."
Typically, most experiments took place within a period of four to five hours, but days of preparation and an hour of reactor running time could lead to days, weeks and sometimes months of analysis.
Brian Grimes, who earned a master's degree in nuclear engineering in 1964 from the UW, worked on the reactor part time as a licensed operator to help pay for graduate school. Grimes said that he really enjoyed his time as a student.
"Having a graduate student desk in the ultra-modern reactor building felt good, and the daily interaction with other graduate students was competitive and motivating," he said. Grimes, who went on to a career with the U.S. government, including serving on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said he also enjoyed the learning environment.
"In pursuing my experimental work at the reactor, the great support from the operations [and] technicians staff is a warm memory," he said.
In addition to the approximately 20 students in the nuclear engineering department, graduate school students from across the university used the reactor for research, including students from the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, chemistry, physics, geology, the UW School of Medicine and mechanical and civil engineering.
Starting in the mid-to-late 1970s, however, nuclear power began to fall out of favor.
"In particular, nuclear power sort of went into a tailspin on [the] West Coast, but especially in the Northwest," Woodruff said. Incidents like the one at Three Mile Island, in which a civilian power reactor in Pennsylvania underwent a partial meltdown in 1979, led to a decline in job prospects for graduates.
"Nuclear power sort of got a bad name," he said. Gradually, the quality of the graduate students declined and then the number of students in the program declined. After the reactor was shut down in 1988, there were barely any graduate students applying for the program, and so the faculty voted unanimously to recommend that the department be disbanded. It officially closed its doors in 1992.
Between 1989 and 1990, the uranium fuel was removed from the reactor's core and shipped to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington for disposal. The reactor sat dormant through the '90s, partially dismantled and in "safe storage," while the UW waited for funding from the Washington state Legislature. The building was used as offices, storage and a robotics laboratory for the College of Engineering.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NRC asked that the UW rename the nuclear reactor building "More Hall Annex."
"We were quite concerned after 9/11 that there might be an attempted break-in by people thinking there might be something of value [in there]," said Stanley Addison, the UW's radiation safety officer. "At that point, we felt that it was just better to completely shut it down. ... [T]hat's where steps really kicked in to get it out of here," he said.
The UW received the necessary funding to dismantle the remaining reactor components, with the decommissioning process finishing last spring.
It ended up being a lot less radioactive than any of us had thought it was going to be. ... [I]t was a pleasant surprise, rather than being the other way around," he said.
After a thorough survey of the building, the remaining metal components of the reactor's core and much of the surrounding concrete were removed, resulting in a concave shape in what remains of the concrete block. The equipment from the control room overlooking the reactor was also removed.
The plan is to eventually demolish the building after the reactor license expires. The UW is now in negotiations with the NRC to finalize the paperwork, but once the license expires, the demolition process will take less than three months. The building will be leveled and the area replanted.
While that may be the end of the UW's reactor, nuclear engineering may not yet be dead. With concerns about the environmental impact of more conventional, fossil fuel-burning power sources, nuclear power's appeal may grow stronger, especially if new techniques to recycle or reuse spent fuel are developed.
"You can't say nuclear power is without risk or without problems, but it's much safer than I think the general public impression [is], and by any meaningful comparison at all, it's a vastly superior way to make electricity as compared with coal, which is how we get most of the electricity in this country," Woodruff said. "Everyone, I think, felt the day would come, and we may be getting pretty close now, when nuclear power will make a comeback, but you can't keep a department going for years just on that premise."
The number of civilian research reactors at universities has declined from approximately 60-70 during the Cold War to about 30 today, including still-functioning reactors at Oregon State University, Reed College and WSU.
Glass windows line the balcony that runs along the top of the reactor building. The windows were part of a bygone era's sense of scientific optimism, as the post-WWII United States embraced the Atomic Age.
"The hypothetical [idea] was that it was going to be [a] very public-friendly reactor that anybody could come up and take a look in here and see the peaceful uses of nuclear energy," Addison said.
That era was supposedly limited to the '50s and '60s, but Addison said that he never recalled any student protests or complaints about the reactor while it was still operating.
"I think, for the most part, it was something that everyone was pretty proud of," he said.
Reach reporter Will Mari at

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