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T'S NOT AN IMPRESSIVE COMPLEX.
"It looks like a goddamned swimming pool,"
remarked one visitor as he viewed the tank housing
the Ford Nuclear Reactor in the Phoenix Memorial
Laboratory on North Campus.
The 27-foot deep, 53,000-gallon reservoir of pure
water glows a bright blue when the reactor is
operating at full capacity. After all is shut down, the
still, clear water takes on a gray-green tint.
The small reactor room is far removed from most
people's images of atomic facilities, influenced largely by
pictures of massive generating stations like Fermi II, Three
Mile Island, and Chernobyl, or scenes from The China
Syndrome. A rowboat (used for repairs on hard-to-reach
parts of the reactor) hangs on a wall, as does a life preserver
reminiscent of those seen on Gilligan's Island.
The Ford's two megawatt output is dwarfed by the 1,100
megawatts generated by the Fermi II reactor in Monroe. The
plant can't even run the lights in its own control room
because it doesn't generate electricity. But it is one of the
most powerful research reactors in the United States.
Although Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials could
not be specific, they estimated that the Ford was one of the
five most powerful research reactors in operation.
In 30 years of operation, accidents - and worries about
them - have been few. Ford officials say they don't have
to worry about their complex because it's not used to
"Back in the '50s, when this was designed, nobody was
thinking about power," explained Gary Cook, the assistant
reactor manager. What they were thinking about was
The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project was conceived
soon after the end of World War II. Dedicated to University
students and alumni who died in the war, the "atoms-for-
peace program" was intended assist scientific and medical
researchers with tools usually unavailable to them.
On the wall of the building's lobby hangs a strange
tapestry depicting the Phoenix, a legendary bird that rises
from its own ashes after consuming itself in flames, a
reminder of the combined destructive potential and peaceful
application of the atom.
The Phoenix Memorial Laboratory and reactor building
are contiguous three-story buildings surrounded by the
Cooley Memorial Laboratory, the G.G. Brown building,
the Crysler Center, and Bonisteel Blvd.
The reactor was built with a $1 million grant from the
Ford Motor Co. and went on line in the fall of 1957. In the
nearly 30 years since, thousands of projects have been done
on the reactor site.
Priority use of the Ford, one of about 40 university
reactors in the country, is given to students and faculty
from several different University departments.As a condition
of a federal grant, faculty and students from other colleges
and universities may also use the facility. Finally, private
companies also use the reactor for research or training
According to Cook, utility companies like Consumer's
Power, Detroit Edison, and Indiana and Michigan and
Electric use the Ford for one week of their two-year training
programs for commercial nuclear plant operators.
On the first floor of the reactor building, eight holes
allow neutron beams to escape for use in research. This
week, using a method called neutron radiography,
Earle is The Daily's Editor in Chief; Schreiber is Photo Editor.
Even after 30 years of operation,
few know of the University's
atomic station on North Campus
By Rob Earle
Photos by Andi Schreiber
researchers will study the injection of fuel into a diesel
engine and watch the inside of the engine at work.
Past projects have included synthesizing
radiopharmaceuticals for medical use and the development of
a process called"x-ray flourescence,"a means of looking at
objects more precisely than with conventional x-ray
The reactor also produces Iodine 131, a tracer substance
used to track down a treat some previously untreatable
cancerous tumors of the adrenal glands.
Concrete blocks are stacked around the reactor wall to
shield against radiation. At each of the beam ports, signs
warn of the radiation level of each station. The three
triangles within a circle, familiar to most from signs
designating fallout shelters, indicate the radiation level in
the direct path of the neutron beam.
A station is considered a radiation area if the beam emits
two-and-one-half to 100 millirems a minute. Normal
background radiation is about .2 millirems a minute. Cook
said the signs "forewarn of possible negative areas."
He added that exposure to large doses of radiation are
unheard of at the Ford.
"It's been a long time since anyone has got as much as
20 percent of the NRC's maximum safe radiation dose,"
Each employee wears a radiation-sensitive badge which
is checked every month to determine the level of radiation
each worker has been exposed-o. Visitors are not allowed
on the floor level closest to the reactor while fuel elements
are being handled.
Leaded glass, thick double doors, the badges, and a strict
policy of fobidding visitors to wander unattended are among
the precautions employed to keep radiation contained.
In running the reactor, operators follow strict procedures
mandated by the NRC.
"Everything we do is by procedure," Cook said. Some of
the more important procedures, like reactor start up and use
of the emergency generator, are triple-checked.
The reactor currently shuts down on weekends, though
an operator is always on hand in case of trouble. During
down-time, technicians perform maintenance and calibration
procedures on the reactor to keep the operation up to NRC
The complex is inspected by the NRC at least once
every two years for adherence to operating procedures,
responsible health-care methods, fuel accountability,
security, and emergency planning.
The NRC also makes a general licensing inspection
every ten years.
"Inspectors go through the plant records to verify that
the licensee is following the the conditions of their
license," said Russ Marabito, an official in the NRC's,
regional office in Chicago.
The Ford's latest license inspection, conducted last year,
passed without problems.
"They have a very quiet and smooth-running operation,"
Operators must have their license renewed every year and
that license is only good for the reactor they work at.
To obtain an operators license, a candidate must pass a
six hour written exam, followed by a four-hour oral section
and a two-hour demonstration section. The yearly follow-up
exams are six-hour written tests.
The ten operators currently working at the Ford are all
University students, though students from other schools and
non-students have worked there in the past. According to
Senior reactor operator Mike Bersuder records calorimeter (heat) data.
Safety equipment in the control room.
P U S EECS
Phoenix Lab Bently Lib.
Crysler Ctr. Mem. Lab
Cook, more than half are
The University has placf
nuclear engineering field, e:
plant construction compan
about two students leave t
NRC each year.
Reactor personnel wor
students or not. "We don't hi
Cook said. "We want to n
"Imagine working 40 h(
about classes," said Eng
Birdsall, a Navy veteran
bachelors degree in Industria
Cook and Birdsall (so
Electrical Engineering a
Theodore Birdsall), with the
humor, are a far cry from I
manager portrayed by Ja
ASFAR AWAY as
Chernobyl and Three Mi
plaguing Fermi II and the
bear little relation to the the
Because the plant is no
explode and there are no dan
the reactions, according to re
reactor core isn't hot enoug
Art and Architecture
'We don't have part-time people anymore. We want
to make sure their loyalties are in reactor operation.'
WEEKEND / BILL MARSH
-Assistant Reactor Manager Gary Cook
PAGE 6 WEEKEND/FEBRUARY 6, 1987
WEEKEND/FEBRUARY b, 1987