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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reed reactor has no backup electricity supply

The things you find surfing the internet. Here's an interesting document filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (motto: "Rubberstamping with the Highest of Standards Since 1954") by Reed College in Southeast Portland. In connection with a license extension application, which has been pending since 2007, the NRC asked Reed what backup electricity it has at its "research" reactor on the college campus.

The answer is, none.

The electrical system is shared with the rest of Reed College. The HVAC system for the reactor is separate from the rest of the campus ventilation system.

The loss of electrical power to the facility results in the deenergization of all the systems at the reactor. There is no backup electrical supply system. Although much of the instrumentation has UPS backup supplies; they are not taken credit for in the analysis. The reactor will shutdown due to the control rod magnets deengergizing and the control rods falling into the core. The HVAC system, instrumentation, and alarms will all denenergize. The HVAC system fans will turn off and the dampers will fail as is. Thus the ventilation system will not go into isolation if the facility looses power. The accident analysis analyzes this condition as a leakage scenario.

It's nice to know that the control rods will automatically fall into the core and stop the nuclear reaction (if everything goes according to plan), but it's not exactly reassuring that everything else will shut off. No alarms? Wow.

On a broader plane, a potentially bigger concern is that the Reed reactor is 43 years old:

The facility and its components were constructed to comply with the building codes of the City of Portland, Multnomah County, and the State of Oregon in 1968. All modifications have been made in accordance with the applicable codes.

The facility was installed in accordance with designs provided by General Atomics and the architectdral designs by Farnham and Peck, registered architects in the State of Oregon.

Forty-three years is old for a nuclear reactor. Instead of running it for another 20 years, which is what Reed is proposing, maybe it's time for the facility to be decommissioned. That would cost about $1 million.

It's doubtful Reed will see it that way. In its initial license renewal application, it had proposed to "uprate" its reactor to a higher power level. It withdrew that request in January of 2010, but it's still seeking 20 more years at the existing level.

It's interesting to us how docile the Reed neighbors and the rest of the city's residents are about that particular facility. Did you know that spent fuel from Reed is trucked through Portland streets to I-205, then to I-84 and out to the nuke dump by Craters of the Moon in Idaho? Me neither.

Comments (24)

What's even scarier is that a bunch of Reedies are running the reactor. Hopefully a few of them refrain from painting themselves blue and taking LSD during the rave week so they can tend to their nuclear beast without hallucinating.

While the automatic scramming of the reactor from the gravity-caused fall of the control rods after an electric power failure may stop the chain reaction activity of the reactor's fuel rod assembly, nothing will cool the apparatus except physical dissipation of the heat from the fuel rod assembly to the control rods, etc.

Might there be a partial meltdown at best, then, and subsequently a resuscitation of the nuclear chain reactions within the structure?

Gives *Sustainability* a whole new glow, doesn't it, Portland?

Kids shouldn't be playing with nuclear power plants.

You'll put your "I" out, kid.

What is important is that the Reed TRIGA reactor, because of it's design and capacity, CANNOT have a melt down, even if the fuel rods are exposed. Water is not necessary to cool the reactor.

As stated in the following article, "The reactor is inherently safe due to the design of the fuel: it cannot have a meltdown, it cannot explode, it cannot have a run away chain reaction, and it is not effective as a 'dirty bomb.'"


Due to the design of the fuel (TRIGA fuel, uranium zirconium hydride) used in the Reed reactor, the nuclear chain reaction slows as the temperature increases, and completely stops below the melting point of Uranium. So the nuclear fuel can't get hot enough to melt.

However, as the nuclear fuel heats up, it does release hydrogen gas inside the fuel rods. My concern would not be that the fuel would melt, but that hydrogen buildup inside the rods would increase the pressure and cause the cladding to burst, releasing gaseous fission fragments. TRIGA reactors are not in containment vessels -- they're in open-air pools, so the fission fragments would be released directly into the reactor bay. Since the ventilation systems would be offline during a power failure, there would be nothing to filter fission fragments out of the air prior to their release from the building. Importantly, note that it says that the dampers will fail "as is". That seems bad; they should fail in the closed position so that the fission fragments are trapped in the reactor bay and do not leak to the outside.

Since the pool is open to the air, another concern would be that during an earthquake, a heavy object could fall into the pool and crush fuel cladding, again resulting in a release of gaseous fission fragments.

Looking through the first-linked document, I see that "the MHA [maximum hypothetical accident] has been defined as the cladding rupture of one highly irradiated fuel element with no radioactive decay followed by the instantaneous release of the noble gas and halogen fission products outside the cladding and into the air."

Surely the cladding rupture of all the fuel elements would be a worse accident that the cladding rupture of one fuel element, so it seems like that should be the MHA instead.

But the next paragraph says that the rupture of one Fuel element is the most severe accident for a TRIGA® reactor.

Tossing in my two pennies:
I also looked up the design...
Disclaimer- I run my opinions past a Professional Engineer that has operated a nuclear reactor and is involved in clean up.

troy, I hope you are being sarcastic
ct, you are on the right track.
Jack, The loss of electrical power isn't that big of a deal, as such, its the lack of understanding/planning for EVERYTHING to go to H in a hand basket. Lets say they did have a back up- didn't help Japan much. "ct" Hits on it- take a close look at what is studied. One fuel rod ruptured, Just the lack of water, Just the lack of electricity...
So when you talk to your Geek, and as they say won't happen, won't happen, start adding things up and watch their face as the truth dawns on them. (example in Japan)OK the rods keeps the stuff apart so they wont react, now the water is gone and the cladding fails, the pellets are in a pile, the hydrogen gas fill the space of the remaining rods and pellets, it reacts with oxygen in the air. Eyes get wide. Boom-dirty bomb. Why is stirring the waste in the Handford tanks such a big deal? Because of all the toxic out of this world chemical soup contains some very heavy atoms- the nuclear ones. The settle to the bottom and cozy up to each other. Not a good thing.
OK example Reed College: (Earth quake scenario seems popular now) power out, rods drop, pool cracked and drained, roof, gantry's etc fall into pool crushing most of the rods, into a pile on the bottom, Hydrogen gas build up, contacts air, boom, College Students Marijuana plants contaminated, unable to sell or safely use.

How dare they TRUCK it out of Portland! They should at least use a delivery tricycle to haul the waste to the city limit.

Sarcastic about what point?

That's all a relief, now that you put it that way. Well, the heck with those backyard chickens, pinwheels and wistful solar panels, I'm gonna get me one of these little nukes, then. Say, can you barbecue a slab o' ribs with one of those? Nuke those zukes, too!

You mean one these little babies?


There's no carbon dioxide release when this reactor operates, making it greener than Mayor Adams.

Ha ha! The Methane Mayor!

What worries me the most is that the guy running the reactor can't spell "lose," and nobody's checking his work.

Jack - We get it you hate nuclear - anything. I suppose you won't be stepping into ANY Health Care Facility ever again then?

It depends. If it's 43 years old and lacks adequate emergency plans, I probably won't.

And this isn't about medicine, Mark. I know that's where you work, but not everything is about you. There is no medicine anywhere need Reed, or Fukushima, or Hanford. They don't heal people at any of those places. Indeed, Hanford's whole reason for existing is mass murder.

Hopefully a few of them refrain from painting themselves blue and taking LSD during the rave week so they can tend to their nuclear beast without hallucinating.

I don't know if this is still the case, but as of about a decade ago they would actually deadbolt the reactor building with a key that operators didn't have during Renn Fayre precisely so that operators wouldn't go and run the reactor so they could look at the pretty blue glow while high.

Until we can harness the power of knee-jerk reactions, nuclear is one of the cleanest, safest power sources available by any measure.

How many coal miners have died? Oil/gas accidents and spills? Transport/transmission costs? Effects of emissions? Petrol refining and processing?

Until solar and geothermal gets cheaper (thanks Google!) and power transmission infrastructure is upgraded to a mesh-style national grid we need to rely on this tech for a while.

The TRIGA reactor was designed for academic purposes. I can certainly understand the viewpoint that Reed doesn't need one, but you haven't presented much ammo for your hypothesis that it is a safety risk. I would continue reading past the first page of the report to the next 40 pages where the safety measures are exhaustively described.

Reading this report (okay, I admit I skipped the equations) actually makes me feel better about the reactor, knowing they are subject to this kind of scrutiny from regulators.

but as of about a decade ago they would actually deadbolt the reactor building with a key that operators didn't have during Renn Fayre precisely so that operators wouldn't go and run the reactor so they could look at the pretty blue glow while high.

Um, no.

I have friends that worked security there in that time frame and while they had lots of stories about handling ODs with kid gloves ("Just pet the wall. Isn't that nice? There you go. Relax. Now, where is your dorm room?") they regularly patrolled the building that houses the reactor and even the security folks could only go so far as the outer room. Access to the reactor room is restricted at all times, not just during Burning Man and May Day.

knowing they are subject to this kind of scrutiny from regulators.

Scrutiny? Hardly. Busy, busy rubberstamping.

Access to the reactor room is restricted at all times, not just during Burning Man and May Day

At least in 2000, reactor operators all had keys to the reactor building, the control room and the reactor bay itself, and could go in there any time they wanted to with no supervision. I have no idea if this is still the case, but it definitely was at one point.

College students, obsolete equipment, and lethal materials -- what could possibly go wrong?

If you do even the smallest bit of reading on the TRIGA (just the wikipedia page even) you'll discover that it was designed specifically for student use.

Being required to respond to a litany of detailed questions about specific safety precautions does not seem to fit the definition of "rubber stamping".

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