Pioneer Reactor still Breaking New Ground after 40 Years
by Melissa Lovin
In May of 1999, the UF training reactor celebrated its 40th anniversary. The reactor is part of the Nuclear & Radiological Engineering department, and is the state's only university based reactor and the first reactor built in Florida. The reactor is small compared to a commercial nuclear reactor and is unable to produce electricity. On the contrary its primary function is to serve as a tool for training, education, and research.
While nuclear scientists and engineers have used the facility in it's 40 year history, it has been used by a wide variety of others, including high school students working on science projects, environmental engineers and forensic workers deciphering evidence from crime scenes. It has also been used as an invaluable teaching tool on operations of a nuclear reactor to many graduates who have gone on to work in the control rooms of the nation's 109 nuclear power plants. "For the power level of this reactor it's pretty heavily used," says Bill Vernetson, director of nuclear facilities for the College of Engineering's Nuclear & Radiological Engineering Department.
Visitors to the facility are able tour the site and are allowed to leave the facility after getting the green "go" light from the walk-through radiation monitor, only one of many safety procedures in place despite the reactor's history of nearly flawless operation. Anyone touring the facility would immediately recognize it for what it is. But when the reactor first went critical May 29, 1959, it represented a radical new technology that few in Florida, or anywhere else in the world, had experienced.
During World War II and the period of time directly following , many of the aspects of nuclear technology were classified military secrets. But in 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had hopes for cheap, limitless electricity and breakthroughs in nuclear medicine, causing him to launch the Atoms for Peace program. The program was aimed at promoting peacetime benefits of nuclear technology first developed for wartime use. Part of the vast program made money available for universities to build and operate reactors for research purposes. Although there was no nuclear engineering department in place at that time UF saw the potential for many different departments to benefit from this program.
At the time nuclear energy was a very popular concept. It was potentially nonpolluting, limitless, and less expensive than coal, gas or oil. According to Glen Schoessow, a professor emeritus of the Nuclear & Radiological Engineering department who came to UF a year before the reactor was completed, "there was euphoria about the nuclear business."
In 1955, the late College of Engineering dean, Joseph Weil, and then Florida Gov. Leroy Collins threw their support behind the project and persuaded the Florida Legislature to pass a bill appropriating $500,000 for construction of the reactor and a building to house it. The Nuclear Engineering Sciences department was formed in 1957 and renamed the Nuclear & Radiological Engineering department in 1996. Construction began on the reactor in 1958. the waster-cooled "modified Argonaut" type reactor first went critical on May 29, 1959.
Today most nuclear reactors generate 3 million kilowatts of heat. UF's reactor generates the equivalent of 10 kilowatts. Because so few reactors were in operation at the time, the reactor at UF was an invaluable addition to the nuclear community, providing hands-on training in a safe environment. Licensed operators for various plants under construction were needed and UF's reactor helped fulfill that requirement.
The reactor was updated to 100 kilowatts in the 1960s which is where it stands today. Its core contains 7 pounds of enriched uranium, minuscule in comparison to the commercial reactors which typically contain more than 100 tons of fuel.
Today, most commercial nuclear facilities use simulators to train their operators. But UF's reactor continues to play a vital role in the areas of education and research. Students and faculty around campus continue to gain from its research as well as the business community. Researchers from one private company have used the facility to ensure spent nuclear fuel is stored safely. Several years back, researchers from the University of West Florida used the site for a major study to determine the impact of oil drilling operations on sea grass communities. Archaeologist have also used trace element analysis to determine the mineral content of clay in Native American pots, helping to pinpoint the pots' origin.
Medical researchers stand in line as well for the the privilege of using the facility. The Shands hospital pharmacology department uses copper irradiated in the reactor to test and calibrate its Positron Emission Tomography scanners used for medical diagnosis. Several of the state's community colleges with nuclear medicine technology programs have also used the reactor on a regular basis.
According to Nuclear & Radiological Engineering professor Jack Ohanian, interim dean of the College of Engineering, the reactor is crucial to the University. "The UF training reactor is an important resource in meeting the university's mission to provide top quality education and research opportunities to its students," he says. Here's to another 40 years of successful research and training.