UF reactor safe

Published: October 30th, 2005

Category: Op-Eds

This op-ed appeared Oct. 30 in the Gainesville Sun.

By: Alireza Haghighat
Alireza Haghighat is chair of the UF Department of Nuclear and Radiological Engineering

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets the standard for all reactors.

In light of the recent scrutiny of university research reactors, I believe I have a responsibility as an educator in nuclear science and engineering to provide information on the importance of the discipline and the reactors.

Following the Manhattan Project, U.S. leaders realized the significant potential to generate ample cheap energy as well as the possibility of improving man’s standard of living. So, the Atomic Energy Commission initiated a worldwide program for educating nuclear scientists and providing assistance in building research reactors.

These reactors were primarily placed at universities. Meant for educating students and performing research, only highly robust and safe core designs with highly conservative shielding were considered. Regulations for operation and training of personnel were created and later enforced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

It is clear the events of 9-11 breached public confidence in the systems and security responsible for control of hazardous materials and subversive individuals. To counter this, the U.S. government revamped security systems and safety procedures of facilities containing hazardous materials including nuclear, biological and chemical substances.

The NRC initiated a careful review of all reactors and, rather than enforcing the same security measures for power and research reactors, developed appropriate measures. These measures considered various parameters, such as the size and design of reactors. Additional security measures were implemented at UF’s Training Reactor, and the practice of those measures was inspected by NRC.

To help readers understand that UF’s training reactor is highly secure and has no impact on public safety, I would like to briefly explain its design.

Its core is constructed of fuel boxes, a graphite reflector and water. Each fuel box contains a few fuel bundles, and each bundle contains several fuel plates. The plates contain a uranium-aluminum alloy, and each is placed inside a relatively thick aluminum cover. The core, in turn, is covered by several layers of shielding materials including water, graphite and around 50 tons of concrete.

The possibility of a close explosion is not only highly improbable, but it would not cause any measurable radioactive release. This is based on a professional common sense deduction and detailed radiation dose modeling. Imagine the force of an explosion that could remove several layers of concrete blocks weighing 2.5 tons each, followed by the removal of several layers of graphite and metal structures, to eventually, “magically,” extract a small amount of uranium and other radioactive materials trapped in the fuel.

In spite of this improbability, we have performed detailed studies by designing a “maximum hypothetical accident,” which considers all uranium and associated radioactive materials being removed from a fuel plate and dispersed into the reactor building. Our analyses demonstrate that even this would not result in a detectable dose, but in fact it would be well below existing background radiation levels.

ABC’s claim of the potentiality of making a dirty bomb is highly improbable, as a highly qualified team is needed to remove the shielding materials, and a highly complex process is required to extract a small amount of reactive material from the aluminum fuel plates.

Our training reactor has many uses. It is essential for training nuclear engineers on reactor physics, control, operation, and regulations. It has applications in various areas, and provides a reasonable source of neutrons and gamma rays necessary for making radioisotopes for nuclear medicine, nondestructive testing devices for homeland security, interrogation of biological, agricultural and structural systems, and benchmarking computational tools essential for the design of new nuclear reactors.

Recent events underline the reality that cheap oil and gas are no longer available and, moreover, that such sources of energy are the culprits of global warming. Of the available alternatives including nuclear, solar, wind, and geothermal, nuclear is the most effective source. It can produce a large amount of energy with minimal waste and no greenhouse gas emissions.

The future prosperity and advancement of this country are highly dependent on effective use of nuclear power. The French realized this more than 30 years ago, and today they produce about 80 percent of their electricity with 55 reactors, while in the U.S., we produce about 20 percent of our electricity with 103 reactors.

Additionally, far-east industrial countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and more recently, China and India, have been making significant investments in the nuclear power industry.

The U.S. nuclear industry has suffered due to a lack of political support. However, this is being countered by the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which incorporates a wide range of measures that support today’s operating nuclear plants and provides important incentives for building new nuclear plants. Several utilities including Progress Energy Florida have expressed interest in ordering new nuclear power plants. For further information on the Energy Bill, see www.nei.org.

To support the renewed interest in nuclear power generation, enrollment at the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering Department at the University of Florida has significantly increased from 74 students (39 undergraduates, 35 graduate) in 2001 to 175 students (103 undergraduates, 72 graduate) in 2005.

In addition to contributions to nuclear power, our faculty are active in other areas including medicine, space power and propulsion, and homeland security. In the area of medicine, the department offers a graduate program in medical physics that trains physicists in the operation and design of radiation therapy and diagnostic devices. In the area of space power and propulsion, the department has an institute, Innovative Nuclear Space Power-Propulsion Institute, (www.inspi.ufl.edu), which was established in 1986. In the area of homeland security, in April 2004, NRE initiated a new state institute, Florida Institute of Nuclear Detection and Security (http://finds.nre.ufl.edu).

I hope I have established the importance of university research reactors, their safety and security, and the importance of nuclear science and engineering for energy security, human health, and security of Florida and the U.S.


Media Contact
Aaron Hoover, ahoover@ufl.edu, 352-392-0186

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