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Monday, December 10, 2012

Oopsie at Reed College nuclear reactor

It's hard for a layperson to tell how serious it was, but a mishap on November 1 required the Reed nucle-head to file this report with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There were "violations of the technical specifications" when the reactor was run with one of its power measuring channels malfunctioning. There had to be a "requalification meeting" a couple of weeks later.

The operator had been told that the log channel was not reliable during his training.... The operator may have been distracted by the trainee who was operating under direction.

Ah, undergrads running a nuclear reactor -- what's not to like?

Comments (9)

Oingo Boingo ~ Dead Man's Party (live)

Distracted? By what pray tell us?
Or just pray!

The trainee?

There used to be a hole in the floor with some sort of closure metal mdoor, right close to a Coca Cola bottle machine, with signs proclaiming the location of said reactor.... and the notice of radiation.... Always wondered about it....

seemed odd then, but that was in 1975 era.

Have others that remember this also, we seem to figure it was no big deal 42 years ago..

The salient paragraph in the report is this:

"Corrective Actions
The following actions were taken to remediate the primary causes and to prevent this type
of event from reoccurring. The area above the preamp has been marked off to remind the
staff not to place electronic equipment over the log channel's preamp. The function,
sensitivity accuracy and precision were addressed in the requalification meeting held
Nov. 12, 2012. The operators and senior reactor operators that participate in training
were told to teach, remind, and or correct statements regarding the use of the log channel
for start-up and steady state operation."

I am nonplussed that the interference from the device placed physically on top of the preamp is sufficient to interfere. That to me is a big red flag. Is the preamp insufficiently shielded against such interference? Is the device place on the preamp generating such large RMI to affect other electronics in the area? How close is close, then, to this preamp?

To me, answering these questions and taking action in depth preempts the concern over a trainee running the reactor, but certainly, until these questions are satisfied beyond "Don't put anything on top of the preamp" the reactor should not be run at all.

Just my 2c worth.

Some idiot probably put a broadcasting smartphone on top of the 20+ year old equipment, and it was picking up interference from the radio. That's what this sounds like to me.

From Reed's website:

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.


The hole in the floor was likely a joke. I toured the place once. The reactor is in a deep swimming pool in the middle of a large room. You can't miss it.

Broadcasting Smartphone EMI?

Oh my!

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