Reed Research Reactor

Frequently Asked Questions

How much power does the Reed reactor produce?

The reactor produces 250 kilowatts of heat (about 10 times as much as a home heating furnace).

How much electricity does the reactor make?

The Reed reactor doesn't produce any electricity. To do that we would need to heat the water in the pool enough to make steam and drive a turbine generator. 

Why do you have a reactor?

We use the reactor as a neutron source. The fission process in uranium produces excess neutrons that we use in experiments.

What good are neutrons?

Unlike other forms of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, x-ray) neutrons can make things radioactive. By making the samples radioactive, we can find out what elements are in them by measuring the radiation they give off. This is called neutron activation analysis.

What do you do with your radioactive waste?

Most of the radioactive material we make has such a short half-life that we can just let it decay for a few months and discard it. It takes us about a year to fill up a standard 55 gallon drum with long lived waste products. We send the drum to a licensed low level radioactive waste site in Richland, Washington. We don't ship or store any liquid waste; we solidify it.

What do you do with your spent fuel?

We may never have to deal with spent fuel. In fact, we have only shipped out fuel once in almost 50 years of operation, and it wasn't because the fuel was spent. It was because we got the opportunity to get fuel with nicer cladding. When we sent that fuel out, only 70 grams of the 2500 grams of uranium-235 that we started with in 1968 had been used. When we are finally done with our current fuel, the US Department of Energy will take possession of it, as they are the actually owners of most reactor fuel. 

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 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.

Is it true that you let students run the reactor?

We rely on students to run the reactor. Reed students do most of the work at the reactor from designing and running new experiments to routine maintenance. There are currently 40 licensed students at Reed.

How does a student get a license?

Our reactor seminar meets two nights a week. It is open to anyone. There is additional less structured training and practice. After a full academic year the students can take the license exam. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sends out examiners from Washington, D.C. who administer a 3-hour written exam and 4-hour walkthrough-operational-oral exam.

Why would someone want to get a license?

The license is only valid at the Reed reactor, so it can't be used anywhere else. One reason students get a license is to use it at Reed to run experiments. We need the students to run the program! Some students want the experience for future work in medicine, science, or engineering. Some do it because they will never have this chance again. Some do it just because it is the most fun job on campus!

What kind of students get a license at Reed?

Most students are science majors — Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics. But just about every other major has been represented — English, Philosophy, Studio Arts, Psychology, Religion, Linguistics, Economics, History, Political Science, etc.

How much radiation do your students get?

As radiation workers they are limited to 5000 millirem per year. The most that any student has ever received is 80 millirem in a year. Normal background radiation is about 360 millirem per year. We take radiation protection very seriously; that is why our exposure record is so good.

How many reactors are there in the United States?

There are 103 power reactors used to make electricity. There are 27 research reactors. Reed College is the only liberal arts college in the world with a nuclear reactor.

How can I arrange a tour of the reactor?

We offer tours for schools and educational organizations all the time. Just fill out a Tour Request Form. We can also offer lab experiments for your class on half life measurement, radiation detection, or a variety of other subjects.

Can I use the reactor for an experiment?

We offer this service to many experimenters, but we have limitations. Contact us and we can discuss it.

How much plutonium do you have? How dangerous is it?

We have a small amount of plutonium in the form of button sources and fission products in our fuel. Plutonium is an alpha emitter, so it poses no threat at all outside the body. If it were vaporized into just the right aeresol and inhaled, it could increase the chances of lung cancer after a few decades. It is much less dangerous than other materials that we use everyday and not even close to being the deadliest element on earth.

Is irradiated food dangerous?

No. The gamma radiation used to irradiate food does not make it radioactive. Gamma rays are ionizing. The ionizations then kill most of the bacteria and fungi living in the food making it safe for you.

Is yours really the most fun reactor in the world?

You Bet!