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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reed nuke reactor: growing old, but fired up more often

Here's the latest annual report on the Reed College "research" nuclear reactor in close-in southeast Portland. Although it's now 43 years old and past its original license term, the reactor is being taken critical ever more often -- and with more inadvertent shutdowns than in many a year.

In the year ended June 30, the reactor was taken critical 432 times on 111 days. That's more than in any year since 1993, and perhaps more than in any previous year, ever. There were 17 inadvertent shutdowns during the year, including one unexplained shutdown -- always a confidence builder. That's the highest total of shutdown boo-boos since 1999.

The report also reveals that there's been a near-complete turnover of the senior staff in the past few months. Among those who have been replaced since May are the reactor director, the associate director, the reactor supervisor, the training supervisor, the assistant training supervisor, the requalification supervisor, and perhaps the health physicist. Only one of those people switched jobs at the reactor; apparently, the rest are gone. That's nearly every staff position listed in the report, except for the college students who get to run the equipment in between bong hits.

Apparently the Reedies find time to pick up a few bucks from the reactor during the year:

The Reed Research Reactor is available for industrial or commercial concerns when it does not conflict with our educational goals. As in the past, the primary operations involved neutron activation analysis of materials or environmental samples. The facility also provides radiation protection training to interested parties and schools in the area.

It's amazing how little attention is paid to the place. To us it seems like trouble waiting to happen.

Comments (24)

Granted, it is a very SMALL nuclear reactor.

What could go wrong? {tongue planted firmly in cheek}...

Probably get more attention if it was a conservative school.

Here is a link to an Aug 2011 Popular Science magazine article about Reed College's reactor: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-08/best-college-labs-reed-college-nuclear-reactor

Reed entrusts the power of fission to students as young as freshmen, licensing twice as many undergraduate operators as any other university.

Oh. My. God.

This is like worrying about the risk of jumping off a curb because jumping off a 30 story building causes death. There is NO way for this reactor to melt down or blow up or even cause enough radiation outside of the reactor room in a worse case scenario.

As for the personnel turn over, only the director and associate director are employees. All others are contractors (the doctor) or students, hence the turn over.

If you read the Reed Reactor FAQ, you would realize this. You could also take a tour or even attend the weekly reactor training seminars.

What are the chances of the reactor melting down?

The reactor doesn't produce enough heat to melt down. Even if all the cooling water were lost, the reactor can be adequately cooled by the air around it.

What are the chances of the reactor blowing up?

The reactor doesn't have enough fissile material to blow up. It is physically impossible.

What about a run-away chain reaction?

The fuel is specially designed to have a strong negative feedback called prompt negative temperature coefficient (PNTC). This means that if power starts increasing, the reactor becomes less efficient and begins shutting itself down. This is based on Freeman Dyson's design.

Have you ever had an accident?

On several occasions one of the fuel elements developed a pin-hole leak that we detected on our radiation monitors. Sometimes the leak just went away; other times we identified and removed the leaking element. Even during our worst fuel leak the amount of radioactive material we released was well below the normal federal limits for continuous operation. There has never been a risk to or health effect on the public.

What is the worst accident that could happen?

The water surrounding the reactor core acts like a shield to protect workers from the radiation. If all the water were to disappear, the radiation levels would be prohibitively high in the reactor room and we would have to leave the room. There would be no need to evacuate any other room or building.

DRA ought to ask for a partial refund of that $160k in tuition monies for that little copy/paste job.

We at Reed thank you for your voluntary PR (and don't care if it ain't voluntary, frankly).

TEPCO was one of their visitors this year?

I know comedy should be left to the professionals -- and two Reedie ex-GFs would kill me -- so I'm gonna' drop it right there. Take it, Bill....

Triga's are research machines. Accidents can happen, but the scale (likelihood/ramifications) is small. Riskier than an electric can opener, probably less than a compressor at a scuba shop filling tanks to 3000 pounds per square inch. Definitely less than the neighborhood meth cooker blowing up and contaminating the neighborhood.

C'mon, Jack, let's sign up for a tour and sit in on a training class. Nothing like seeing with one's own eyes. Besides, we're already on the Fed's watch list, so let's add "noo-cu-lur spectator" to our dossier.

Luis should work on his reading comprehension skills.

If all the water were to disappear, the radiation levels would be prohibitively high in the reactor room and we would have to leave the room. There would be no need to evacuate any other room or building.

I'm sure the parents of the kids in the dorms are thrilled at the news.

What about the potential for an accident during fuel loading?

What about the potential for an accident during transportation of waste?

If you know so much, why don't you know what caused the unexplained shutdown? And why were there 17 unintended shutdowns last year?

Reed can have a reactor, but query whether it ought to have a 43-year-old one, and whether there should be so many college freshmen running it.

Why don't you email the reactor director and ask? I'm sure she'll be happy to answer your questions. My knowledge is out of date since I'm an alum.

Melinda Krahenbuhl, Ph.D.
Reed Research Reactor, Chem-102
3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.
Portland, OR 97202-8199
f: 503-777-7274

I can tell you right now that freshman NEVER operate the reactor as it takes a full year of weekly seminars and homework to pass the reactor operator exam. They are also supervised by senior reactor operators who have passed an additional exam which takes another year of study. They, of course, are supervised by the director and assistant director.

It's one of the best paid student jobs on campus. Of course you have to invest a year of study equivalent to a year-long course you get no credit or grade for and be in the top 15 students to qualify.

"We are dependent on incoming freshmen who want to run the reactor. Without you we'd be shutdown in four years for lack of operators.

There are no prerequisites to taking the seminar. The orientation meeting is on Tuesday, September 6 at 7:30 pm in Psychology 105. Subsequent meetings are on Mondays. Below is the description of the training from the website:

"The seminar is in addition to your regular class load. The seminar meets two nights every week. On Monday's at 7:30 pm there is a group seminar in lecture/discussion format. On Wednesday there is a practical lab to apply the skills necessary to operate the reactor. The Wednesday lab is repeated on Thursday to keep the labs small and so you have a choice of nights. There are homework assignments and checkoffs requirements in addition to the class time and labs. The seminar runs September through the first week of December.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, 15 students are selected to continue the program in January to get ready for the NRC exam in May. We come back two weeks BEFORE classes start in the Spring for two weeks of maintenance and work. That will be on January 9, 2012. The seminar then starts again in the same format (Monday and Wednesday/Thursday) until the end of April. Then the NRC exams consist of a three hour written exam and a four hour operational exam. They will probably be during the week of April 30, 2012.
All this information will be publicized during orientation week and the first week of classes. If you somehow miss the notices, feel free to email or call after classes start."

OK OK DRA - Let me ask the painfully obvious - does Reed drug test (and yes your school has that distinct reputation) those who are allowed to play nuclear operators on campus? I can bet the answer is no and that alone would give me cause.

The other thing that concerns me is that if the students get wasted and trash that campus once a year (and I've seen that mess and was disgusted) at the end of the school year, I'd be concerned about that kind of lack of maturity and judgement running a nuke plant.

Jack - Since this is such a worry for you why not call Dr. Krahenbuhl and make an appointment to visit, and LEARN about the reactor? MAYBE - if you are capable in math - you might come to understand the periodic table of the nuclides, half lives, and the differences between different kinds of radioactivity. If Reed didn't have a reactor there would be no place local to learn about them, after all Reed College is a SCHOOL!

I understand all about that, and I learned it without having to play with a toy version of a reactor. I've toured Trojan, Hanford, the whole works. For a couple of years, I was on a State of Oregon advisory commission dealing with Hanford.

Here are some numbers I also understand:

19 -- an age way too young to be trusted with operating a nuclear reactor.

43 -- an age at which a nuclear reactor is too old and ought to be decommissioned before somebody gets hurt.

I'm a current Senior Operator at Reed, and honestly this entire exchange is insulting. Without having met any of us, you assume that we are immature, unqualified pot heads not fit to be licensed operators, despite having been deemed fit by at least one and sometimes two (in the case of senior operators) exams administered by the NRC. When you don't ask questions like, "what is your fuel loading procedure?" before immediately jumping to the conclusion that fuel loading and movement is an unacceptable risk, you lose all credibility. When you don't take the time to find out what our waste disposal procedures are and make assumptions you lose all credibility. When you start asking real questions instead of making assumptions and passing them off as questions, maybe you'll actually learn something.

I've already learned a lot: Your equipment is really old, you have inexperienced operators, there's been wholesale turnover in the permanent staff, and you're cranking up both criticality and errors. As a person who lives in Portland, and actually knows something about nuclear power, I'm nervous. Why don't you tell the Reed administration that you want to decommission this creaky old plant, get a new one, and figure out some way to stabilize the staff?

It's not a power plant, the production of radiative materials is negligible, the release to the environment below any measurement capabilities. Our equipment is not old; we just got new fuel and a new heat exchanger, and we replace and repair equipment as need. You expertise about nuclear power is irrelevant as this is a research facility, so when you read up on those let me know. Furthermore, all, I repeat all, of our unintended SCRAMs are from fluctuations in electrical grid power. When power flickers, the electromagnets that hold our rods release them and the control rods fall into the core, shutting the reactor down. If you want to complain about that, talk to PGE.

43. Years. Old.

And no backup power supply. It's pitiful.

Since Reed has such a reputation as a hub for smack, do the student operators get drug tested? When and how often?

Research reactors do not generally drug test operators, power reactors do. All of our important safety/monitoring equipment such as airborne contamination meters, are, actually, on a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) and will run even if we lose power from the grid. Losing power from the grid AUTOMATICALLY shuts the reactor down, and it is physically impossible for a meltdown to occur. Again, if we lose power, we are immediately in the safe, shutdown condition that is the goal during any emergency. This is the last comment I'm going to make, if you want to learn more, do so, if not, stop talking about things you don't understand.

And one more thing. We don't show up to work stoned. Ever.

And the way you verify that is? Take everybody's word for it?

Research reactors do not generally drug test operators, power reactors do.

Industry practice in the nuclear industry has been a disaster, worldwide. "Everybody does it" is not good enough.

I like the "generally," though. That's pretty cute.

All of our important safety/monitoring equipment such as airborne contamination meters, are, actually, on a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) and will run even if we lose power from the grid.

A brilliant half-truth, son. You'll fit right in in the nuclear industry. We quoted from your own document here. There's no backup power for the reactor.

stop talking about things you don't understand.

I know enough to know that the Reed reactor is old and needs to be decommissioned.

I also get the sense that you are quite uncomfortable with any public attention being paid to your dangerous little toy. Well, get used to it.

Jack Bog:

According to an article in Scientific American last year, the NRC doesn't seem to have must of a problem re-licensing 40 year old reactors for another 20 years. Do you believe that the NRC's methods of evaluation are flawed? If so, could you explain why it is that you believe you know more than the NRC?

The NRC is an industry lapdog. They may know more than I do, but they're bought and paid for.

Jack Bog: You've claimed several times that 40 years is the maximum safe lifetime for a reactor, but you haven't provided any evidence to back up your claim. Can you do so?

Jack Bog: For clarification, you haven't said that 40 years is the maximum safe lifetime, but you have said that 43 is "a nuclear reactor is too old and ought to be decommissioned." I'm looking for the evidence you base that assertion on.

Is it hot in your troll hole? The case has been made quite capably by others. But the NRC won't listen, which is how you get Fukushima-ed. Profit first, health second.

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