While nuclear technology has recently received intense public scrutiny following the events in Japan, nuclear engineering students at UF say there is no reason to panic over UF’s nuclear reactor.
The UF Training Reactor is a small-scale nuclear reactor housed in the Nuclear Sciences Building that is used to teach students how to operate and monitor power plant reactors. It hasn’t been operational since 2008.
To do experiments, control blades that absorb neutrons are removed from the core. Then, neutron-heavy plutonium beryllium adds the initial neutrons to get the reaction started.
The neutrons are then free to interact with the uranium, which creates a chain fission reaction until the fuel is hot. At that point, the experiments begin.
“I don’t think a lot of people even know it’s here,” said Daniel Lago, a nuclear engineering senior at UF.
When some people hear “reactor,” he said, they think of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear incidents.
But this one is nothing like that, Lago said.
The 52-year-old reactor, which is fueled by plates of uranium rather than the uranium rods big reactors use, doesn’t produce electricity because it doesn’t boil water to turn turbines.
The reactor only produces heat.
At its hottest, the fuel is 100 degrees Fahrenheit, not even strong enough to boil water. At most, it gives off about the same amount of radiation per hour as the amount that comes from eating a banana and its naturally radioactive potassium.
“I was at St. Augustine the other day. I got more radiation from just standing in the sun than I would from standing next to the reactor,” said Andrew Cartas, a nuclear engineering senior at UF.
The UF reactor is small compared to the full-scale power plants, such as the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station south of Miami.
“It’s a baby reactor in the sense that it is low power,” Lago said.
And since it doesn’t produce electrical power, it exists for the sake of students and researchers. With it, they radiate materials like metals to see how they would hold up in space; test tissue samples for cancer research; and learn how to monitor a running power plant for problems.
Students sit in their nuclear engineering courses and use old data produced from previous experiments with the reactor while engineers and students work to add features such as a digital control room to the reactor, which originally cost about $450,000 to build.
Lago has worked on upgrading the reactor for three years, and he estimates it will be back in service before the end of the year.
When it’s done, it will be the first reactor in the U.S. to have a fully digital control room. The reactor will take measurements and make adjustments on its own, but people will watch the panels to make sure the machine does what it’s supposed to do.
Cartas said having a reactor on campus is an invaluable resource for students.
“It really gives our students an edge,” he said.
He said it’s one thing to read about reactors in a book, but it’s so much better to see one in action.