The Michigan Daily -- Friday, December 9, 1994 - 3
mA look at the University's
*North Campus nuclear reactor
By ANDREW TAYLOR
Daily Staff Reporter
Just two buildings away from the
North Campus Commons, tucked
between a construction site and a
couple pine trees, rests a nuclear reac-
tor. This inconspicuous lab looks
mple, both inside and out. There are
no tinted glass windows or high-story
offices, as found on many Central Cam-
pus buildings. After passing through a
heavy steel door, the lab reveals no
shiny metal machines and only a hand-
ful of computers. The facility could
easily be mistaken for an old garage,
with its concrete floors, high ceilings
and casually painted walls- if not for
e blue glow radiating from an open
1 of water.
An ancient Egyptian mythological
bird, the Phoenix was consumed by fire
only to be reborn out of its own ashes.
After atomic bombs helped write his-
tory during World War II, University
students wanted to see the atom "re-
born," into something useful for sci-
The Michigan Memorial-Phoenix
*roject was founded in 1948 as a
memorial to the 585 University
alumni, students, faculty and staff who
died in World War II. At the time,
two-thirds of the University's 18,000
students had been in the armed ser-
vices, including four out of every five
men. During the 1950s, $6.5 million
was raised through public donations
for the lab, and in addition, the Ford
otor Co. gave $1 million for the
eactor itself, which began operation
on Sept. 18, 1957, to become the
second research reactor in the nation,
after Pennsylvania State University's.
"The purpose is kind of noble,"
said Reactor Manager Bob Burn. The
lab, which hosts less than 200 visitors
per year, is dedicated to researching
the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
No military research has ever been
Sone on the site.
"We don't accept any classified
projects or funding from the Depart-
ment of Defense," said Ronald
Flemming, director of the Phoenix
What type of work is done?
The practical applications for
nuclear research are limitless, cover-
g a wider array of disciplines than
"You name it we do it. We liter-
ally supply that service to anyone
who needs it at no charge," Burn said.
Burn said that while the reactor is
available "for whatever anybody wants
to use it for," the "bread-and-butter"
work of the lab is neutron activation
analysis. Put simply, most of the basic
elements that make up every known
substance become radioactive when
exposed to radiation. All elements have
specific characteristics that allow re-
searchers to identify them by how they
respond to radiation. By exposing al-
most anything to the radiation from the
reactor, researchers can tell the com-
position of a sample.
Nuclear Engineering Prof. John C.
Lee said, "Neutron analysis is a very
accurate technique to identify very trace
amounts of a substance."
The uses cover many disciplines
such as anthropology, archeology,
biology and chemistry. (See chart at
The reactor is also used for projects
other than neutron
Spray paint: analysis. Another
popular study is
phy, which is
similar to an X-
ray. In the base-
ment of the lab,
six-feet thick con-
crete and lead
walls surround the
X-Ray These walls have
when opened al-
low radiation to
escape. The doors
lead to tubes and
aisles in which
objects can be
placed in the path
of the radiation.
Behind the ob-
jects, sheets of
Radiograph film are set. The
through the object and prints a picture
on the film.
"X-rays can not see through a me-
tallic object. If you wanted to look
inside aengine forexample, X-rays are
completely useless," Lee said.
X-rays work well on water, oil and
human skin, which are light substances,
but they are absorbed by heavy materi-
als such as metals.
For example, recently an auto
transmission design that overheated
was studied. The transmission was
set while running in the path of the
radiation. Using the print on the film,
the points of oil blockage
were identified and the trans-
mission modified. Similar
: studies have been done on
fuel injectors and large jet
engines, including those used
by the NASA space shuttles.
The lab houses numer-
ous other projects as well.
For instance, researchers
study steel shielding for com-
mercial power labs to test
how well it will contain ra-
diation inside a larger reac-
tor. "We can give the equiva-
lent of about 40 years in a power reac-
tor in about a year," Burn said. Another
experiment is argon-argon age dating,
used to measure the level of potassium
in rocks to determine their age.
The lab also contains a Cobalt-60
irradiator, which is separate from the
reactor. Cobalt is a substance which
emits gamma rays, used in the steril-
ization of bone cartilage prior to trans-
The reactor's design
"The (University) reactor is like a
Model T Ford," Flemming said. "It's
a simple design. The fuel elements
each have a life of two or three years.
If we have spare parts, this reactor
can run forever, just like a Model T."
The reactor sits at the bottom of a
50,000-gallon pool in a large room. A
person standing in the pool, next to
the reactor, would receive a fatal dose
of radiation in less than a second.
Twenty feet of water is all that sepa-
rates the reactor from the observers.
There are no walls, glass shields or
barriers of any kind, save a simple
railing around the pool. Only one
worker has ever fallen in the pool,
and he simply climbed out unharmed.
Radiation levels are low at the top of
the pool, and workers would shut
down the reactor before anyone could
sink to the bottom, where the deadly
"The water's real function is to
reduce high energy flow," Burn said.
The water is kept extremely pure
through filtration. Any foreign sub-
stances such as salt could become
radiated down near the reactor and
circulate to the surface where it would
expose the workers.
"You could actually drink this
water right now and it wouldn't do
any harm," Burns said. "We have
never emptied this water in 35 years,"
while adding that the pipes have no
corrosion and there's no algae.
The water circulates past the reac-
tor at 1,000 gallons per minute, and
out below the lab. There it is pumped
outside through a cooling system and
then back into the lab, which does not
discharge any water.
Deep in the pool, radiation levels
are high, but distance blocks the ra-
diation. Also, the reactor operates at a
low power level of two megawatts,
compared to 3,000 at a typical com-
mercial power reactor.
The water temperature is 110 de-
grees, and only reaches about 160
degrees at the core. A large commer-
cial power reactor works on a similar
design, but encapsulates water around
the reactor at high pressure to keep it
from boiling. For example, a power
reactor operating at about 570 de-
grees uses steam generated by boil-
ing water to run a turbine.
While the Phoenix reactor gen-
erates enough energy for about
1,000 homes, the power is not used.
The reactor's relatively low tem-
perature provides little chance of a
meltdown as in commercial reac-
tors. Even if the coolant systems
failed, and the water drained out of
the pool, significant amounts of ra-
diation would not spread beyond
the pool itself, Burn said.
"We didn't want to have a reactor
on a university campus where it could
harm thousands of people, so it's de-
signed that way," Burn said.
Forty low-enriched uranium fuel
Above: The nuclear reactor lies in this pool 22 feet below.
Below: The Phoenix lab keeps low-level radioactive waste on site.
the core, stopping the reaction in about
half a second.
The reactor's blue glow is caused
by fast-traveling, high-energy electrons
released in the water by fission within
the core. As the electrons are slowed by
the water, they release energy as bril-
liant blue light.
The reactor site
"The reactor is in very good shape,"
Lee said. "But it is old, so we've been
updating some of the control systems."
Burn said, "We have never gone
overboard in shutting the facility and
The lab keeps low-level radioactive
waste on site, since few dumps will take
it. Burns said the trash is safe, but slightly
radioactive. It is not dangerous, so steel
barrels are stacked in an unused part of
the site's basement, open to passersby.
Currently, about six years worth of
gloves, paper and sample capsules are
being stored, with space available for
the next 10 years.
All the fuel and technical support
for the reactor is provided by federal
government, while building mainte-
nance and salaries are paid by the Uni-
versity. Many of the two dozen staff
members are former U.S. Navy per-
sonnel studying nuclear physics.
Since 1966, the reactor is one of the
most active in the country. Researchers
run the reactor 24 hours a day for 10
days straight with four off days. This
allows research to be done that is not
28' deep pool,
open at bottom
The reactor core
while the reactor was still operational.
Burn said the incident was a communi-
cation error that did not have the poten-
tial to release radiation.
Nevertheless, the federal Nuclear
Regulatory Commission threatened to
fine the lab $1,250 for failing to report
the incident. The June 8, 1992 error
took nine days for Flemming to report
to the NRC, said a representative from
the NRC's regional- headquarters in
Glen Ellyn, Ill. Regulations require
problems be reported within 24 hours,
the representative said.
Burn said he would have reported
the incident immediately, but was on
possible at many
reactors at universi-
ties hardly operate
at all," Burn said.
"Michigan State had
one, and it hardly
ever ran. They sent
all of their work.
here, so they shut it
'You could actually
drink this water
right now and it
wouildn't do any
r n +n, m -,mn
vacation, Burn said dur-
ing his absenee, some
Flemming it shouldn't
Burn said when he
learned of the problem,
"I said 'Jesus, I think
we ought to report this
to the NRC.' Even if
you don't think it's a
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