Reed Colleges research reactor rejuvenated

by: Merry MacKinnon Research Reactor Director Stephen Frantz can often be seen riding his Segway from Reed College along Woodstock Boulevard to his home nearby. Frantz is retiring soon, and as a parting gesture he was able to prolong the lifespan of Reed’s research reactor by replacing its deteriorated aluminum rods with steel-clad uranium fuel rods, obtained from the University of Arizona via the U.S. Department of Energy.

In late January, a cask-laden flatbed truck drove into Reed College off S.E. Woodstock Boulevard and delivered a cargo of 91 uranium fuel rods.

With the arrival of the steel-clad fuel rods, Reed's nuclear research reactor is now able to replace its old aluminum-clad fuel rods while doubling its power capacity to 500 kilowatts, says Reactor Director Stephen Frantz. Previously, the reactor's power capacity was 250 kilowatts - the equivalent of ten home-heating furnaces.

With four U.S. Department of Energy representatives looking on, student reactor operators participated in the fuel rod installation.

'It's the only research reactor operated primarily by students,' Frantz observed. The forty involved students first take a 40-hour Radiation Safety Officer class, he explained.

Reed's TRIGA nuclear reactor is used for experiments, and not to produce power.

'It doesn't make electricity,' Franz saod. 'The reactor can't melt down.' Nor can it explode, according to Reed's webpage at: However, in certain cases, it could emit radiation.

The reactor's old fuel rods were clad in aluminum, which over the years had worn. Without new fuel rods, Reed College's aging reactor might eventually have been shut down. Several times in the past pin holes appeared in the old rods, allowing radiation to seep out.

'I'm optimistic, now that we've gotten rid of the aluminum-clad rods, that we won't have that anymore,' Frantz concluded.

Previously, when small amounts of radiation escaped into the air outside, surrounding neighborhoods were routinely notified, although, according to Frantz, the leaks did not pose a health risk.

In case of a radioactive episode, a process of notifying nearby neighborhood associations was set up after radiation bled into the outside air from a pinhole leak in 1991, three years before Frantz arrived at Reed. 'There was no risk to the community, but we didn't tell them until 24 hours afterward, and we rightfully got our hand slapped,' Frantz commented. 'The neighborhood associations said, 'You should tell us immediately.''

In a worst-case scenario, if the reactor's aluminum tank were to rupture and the 25,000 gallons of water covering the fuel rods were to drain off, students in the reactor room would have just enough time to escape before being exposed to dangerous gamma rays. 'We assume they can get out in two minutes,' Frantz said.

And in what he says is an unlikely scenario involving the destruction of one fuel rod, the surrounding community would still not be at risk: 'In that case there would be a release into the environment - but even with that, the radiation would be far below that which would cause a health effect.'

He did not say what the risk could be if all the fuel rods were damaged.

With the new fuel in place, the Reed reactor must now undergo re-licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 'They look at everything,' Frantz explained. 'And they are making sure we meet the new earthquake standards.'

Frantz says he doesn't know if the reactor building has been earthquake-retrofitted. However, he believes it was originally constructed (1968) above the standards for the time. 'But the building would not withstand a nine-point earthquake,' he added.

Ian Madin, Chief Scientist at Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, says any kind of hazardous facility needs to be earthquake-proofed. 'The building should be designed to resist expected earthquakes,' Madin says. 'And an awful lot of buildings in Portland currently don't match up with earthquake standards.'

As for the reactor's 61 old aluminum-clad fuel elements, they are currently stored underwater in the reactor room. Later this year, the Department of Energy will transport them to Idaho's nuclear waste depository, according to Frantz. Also stored on campus are 3.5 gallons of low-level Class A radioactive waste, in a drum that is picked up once a year and taken to a nuclear waste site.

'In its four decades of service, the reactor has only produced 60 grams (2.11 ounces) of radioactive waste,' Frantz told THE BEE.

The reactor is certified by the State of Oregon to perform radiation meter calibrations, and is often used in collaborations with external research groups.

'We take samples and make them radioactive,' Frantz went on. 'In that way, researchers are able, for example, to analyze rocks and plants for trace elements. The facility is also available for industry applications, including environmental monitoring of industrial effluents.'

Frantz said he was delighted to obtain the new steel-clad fuel rods from the University of Arizona, which had removed the rods from its own research reactor. If Frantz hadn't snagged them, he says the fuel rods would have ended up in the Idaho depository.

'We scored,' Frantz grinned, adding that uranium fuel rods are normally hard to obtain. 'This fuel is in much better condition than our previous fuel.'

The only other research reactor in the State of Oregon is at Oregon State University in Corvallis.