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Derek Key

UT's nuclear reactor safe despite skepticism, says university professor

The nuclear reactor is located at the J.J Pickle Research Campus, and is used by the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Nuclear and Radiation Engineering Program as a teaching and research tool.
Derek Key

The University of Texas at Austin is a world-renown research institution; it even has its very own nuclear reactor.

The reactor, located at the J.J Pickle Research Campus, is used by the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Nuclear and Radiation Engineering Program as a teaching and research tool, said Steven Biegalski, an associate professor in nuclear and radiation engineering as well as the director of the teaching laboratory.

“There are literally hundreds of experiments the reactor is used for,” said Biegalski.

There are no giant cooling towers dominating the research campus; the university’s reactor, a TRIGA Mark II nuclear research reactor, is a miniature version of commercial reactors. It essentially has all the same parts, but generates a steady-state power maximum of only 1.1 megawatts—about one-3,000th of the of the power generated by a commercial nuclear reactor. A wind turbine going full-speed generates around the same amount of power.

“I call it the bath-tub version,” says Biegalski, referring to the extreme size difference between UT’s reactor and commercial ones, which are both kept cool in a pool of water. The miniature size allows the entire set-up, including laboratory, core, cooling pool and associated equipment to fit inside of a three-story cement building at the research center.

Unlike a commercial reactor, UT’s reactor is used exclusively for experimental procedures, not the production of power to fuel external sources, says Biegalski.

The relatively low power generation, and associated low pressures and temperatures make a meltdown event “no real risk,” says Biegalski. Still, Bonnie Canion, a graduate student in the Nuclear and Radiation Engineering Program, says that people’s initial reaction is fearful when she tells them about the reactor.

“Every time I tell somebody that there’s a nuclear reactor here…they always say ‘Really? That’s scary,” Canion said.

The nuclear reactor generates radioactive waste from spent fuel and experimental materials which is contained safely and securely within the facility, said Biegalski. Most of the waste is classified as low-level but the reactor fuel, made up of uranium zirconium hydride, creates high-level waste that will require specialized storage. But that won’t be for at least another 50 years from now, according to Biegalski. The fuel core itself is about the size of a small coffee table.

“That’s one of the main advantages of nuclear power,” said Biegalski. “You get a whole lot of energy from very little mass.”

The reactor is used in research ranging from research on nano-particles, - microscopic materials that have potential in medical applications - to environmental forensics, which helps identify pollutants and contaminants in ecosystems. What unites the diverse research projects is that they almost all use the neutrons generated by the reactor.

The neutral charge of the aptly named atomic particle allows it to penetrate deeply into samples, says Canion, where it is absorbed by different elements in unique ways. The neutrons cause some elements to undergo radioactive decay, causing it to emit a signature array of particles. This signature allows the individual components of a material to be identified. In Canion’s case, she used the reactor to help identify elements present in Indonesian volcanic ash from a 2010 eruption.

“Whenever a volcano erupts there’s hundreds of thousands of tons of ash that’s suddenly in that environment and I was studying what’s in the ash and what could leech out of the ash,” said Canion.

One of the most notable uses of the university’s reactor is in the creation of very pure isotopes, or molecular varieties, of xenon gas, said Biegalski. The gas from campus is used to calibrate xenon detectors, an important device used to sense leakage of radioactive materials from nuclear sources like weapons and other reactors. Xenon doesn’t easily bind with other molecules so when leakage occurs it’s usually one of the first molecules to escape, making it a prime-signaling molecule.

“Other reactors around the world rely on us to provide it,” said Biegalski.

The xenon is created as a by-product in the fission reactions that occur during normal operation of the reactor.

As the array of uses for UT’s reactor shows, there’s a whole wide world of nuclear science. But major nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and, on a lesser scale but more recent timeline, Fukushima, makes the general public to associate the word nuclear with disaster.

“People are really afraid of the word ‘nuclear’,” says Canion.“Instead of teaching people about nuclear science we try to avoid telling anybody about it. There’s this whole word of radiation that nobody knows about.”

For example, the more accurate name for magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is actually NMRI with the ‘n’ standing for nuclear. Even though the radiation emitted during the procedure is harmless the ‘n’ has been dropped from the common name because it scares patients.

“It’s such a shame,” said Canion, referring to the dropped ‘n,’ “instead of that we should be teaching people about it.”

Video of the nuclear reactor:

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