Research Reactors: A Resource Disappearing from America

When I began writing this blog I had three core goals in mind:

1) To educate our industry about its history with an especial focus on the unique and varied developments in nuclear technologies for power-generation, military, and medical applications. 

2) To educate our industry about the sociocultural position of nuclear power and technology in society and what needs to be done to win more people over to the merits of nuclear power and rekindle America's view of nuclear as a promising technological field instead of something to fear. 

3) To educate the lay public about how history, new developments, and policy issues formulate how nuclear power and technologies function the world over.

In bits and pieces, I am slowly accomplishing these three goals. I have not, alas, been able to devote as much time to this blog as I would have liked; I still have a massive post or series of posts I desire to do on the development of nuclear-powered aircraft in the US and USSR during the Cold War, because that's a fascinating story that needs to be told in greater depth than I've found it addressed most anywhere. That will come, in due time, it will come. I promise.

For now, I want to talk about the role of research reactors in America. The NRC considers these non-power reactors to be "research and test reactors" which is accurate: most are for research and education in an academic setting but some function more for research and testing applications within industry. They operate in the general service of three main purposes: to educate future reactor operators, to conduct research on reactor technologies and related topics, and to allow for the testing of both new reactor technologies and also, in a different type of testing application, of other materials via non-destructive or sample-based testing modalities which require a nuclear reactor. 

These reactors are little-known to the general public. Now and then, they make an appearance in the local news media when a reporter decides to note the university nearby has a reactor on campus, but otherwise, they stay safely behind their ivy-covered walls. I am uncertain whether this is a good thing or not. Perhaps, by staying out of sight and out of mind, research reactors evade the misguided opposition power reactors often get from certain activist groups, which can only be good. But on the other hand, perhaps we're missing a golden chance to tell the world about the vast benefits of these reactors and how they not only serve as training instruments for undergraduate and graduate nuclear engineering students but also contribute—whether in industry or academia—to the progress of science in many areas from medicine to materials engineering. While the vast majority of research reactors are located in academic settings, some are still in industry—a few decades ago, this was much more the case than today. For a variety of reasons, industry has divested itself of many of its reactors over time with a solid decline in NRC licenses for operational reactors over the 1990s and 2000s. For one, more companies have realized that forming partnerships with universities that have such reactors often offers the amount of access to these reactors for experiments insofar as actually necessary. Buying time with a reactor sure beats owning your own outright in many cases where use is not super-intensive. In addition, the ownership of a reactor is governed by strict NRC regulations: to wit, a company that wishes to own and operate a reactor needs to prove it has the financial backing to ensure safe and able continued operations; it must also prove its parent ownership is not a by majority share of a foreign corporation. When the neutron radiography company Aerotest Operations went up for sale, they (and their buyers) discovered this the hard way. Owning—much less operating—a reactor is a heavy, costly, business and the NRC is just as serious about regulating the safety and surety of the research reactors as they are of the better-known and much larger power reactors. 

While research reactors are overall very safe, they do at times suffer problems and on rare instances, they suffer events that for practical purposes end their operational lives. Cintichem's reactor in upstate New York, which was used for research and production purposes for nuclear medical isotopes, suffered a foundation crack in its secondary containment structure and alas, repair of this would cost more than it would have been worth—or so the reasoning went. Eventually, the entire research complex was razed and Cintichem's corporate property—including some interesting intellectual property—passed on to Dow Chemical (who, it should be mentioned, has their own research reactor in Midland, Michigan). Thus, situations where the age of a reactor and the prospects for partnerships able to provide the same level of necessary access to a reactor have brought corporations to seek these partnerships over hosting their own reactor. This is a move, one that could in a broad sense be considered outsourcing, which is also much a product of our past two decades. In the 1950s when the Atoms for Peace program suggested that nuclear power for civil applications would change the world in only a positive way, the ideal of companies having their own research and test reactors was a keystone part of the Atoms for Peace concept. It was also at this same time that the idea of major land-grant universities having departments of nuclear engineering hosting a research reactor came about: The premise of educating future generations of nuclear engineers and other related professionals was in tandem with the premise of industry expanding nuclear as a new set of unique tools for meeting novel industrial and technological challenges. 

By the early 2000s, these dreams had changed in marked and disturbing ways. A graph published in “The Future of University Nuclear Engineering Programs and University Research Reactors,” (M. L. Corradini, et al, May 10, 2000; Report to NERAC) indicates this in stark terms: While the US had about 65 university-based research reactors in 1980, by the year 2000 these had been reduced to less than half of that capacity, with only around 30 still operational. By 2003, according to a National Organization of Test, Research, and Training Reactors report "University Research Reactors: a National Asset at Risk", only a mere 28 college-based reactors still remained in operation. The same report noted that between 1994 and 2003—less than a single decade—the following university-based reactors had been shuttered: 

Georgia Institute of Technology     5 MW
University of Virginia     2 MW
State Univ. of New York, Buffalo    2 MW
University of Illinois     1.5 MW
Cornell University      500 kW & 100W
Iowa State University      10 kW
Manhattan College    0.1 Watt

While this data probably won't surprise many readers, I share it to make a sound point: While industry was scaling back its own participation in operation of research reactor facilities, academia—the primary source to replace the resources industry was divesting—was actually doing the very same and in as acute a manner. That left the rectors of the national labs under the auspices of DOE for both academic and industrial users. Even these often-specialized reactor facilities have been scaled back over the past few decades and do not stand in as great of numbers as they did in their golden age from the 1950s to the 1970s. For someone who is fairly young like myself, the early years of the Cold War seem like ancient history and a long period of technological, military, and political development but when you note that we're speaking over only a couple decades, you can start to see where this creates a multitude of various problems germane to research reactors today. For one, when technologies progress, they normally become less-expensive, smaller, easier-to-use, and also in greater general demand: computers are a prime example of this trend, but you can find the same concept at play in other tech areas. Drone aircraft would be another one. However, with research reactors, though the possible applications for these reactors only grew, the resources of reactors at all levels—academic, industry, and national labs—dwindled. In some capacities, this situation was met with what I would call a simple if foolish jerk of the head to look the other way. For example, the Cintichem reactor was designed to produce medical isotopes and when it was removed from service, instead of countering that loss, we simply looked to Canada to take on even more of the nuclear medicine production burden. 

Why did this happen? Why did both colleges and industry believe shuttering reactors was better than investing in their stewardship or even expanding their capacities with new reactors? For one, in the 1980s to the 2000s, there was a steady decline in interest in the nuclear power industry so the idea of training more engineers for the field was on the decrease and fewer students majored in nuclear-related fields. For another, universities—large institutions where upper-administration cannot know in-depth every college and department across campus—have not in recent decades fully appreciated the contributions of research reactors. Unlike medical researchers, those who oversee nuclear engineering education have not been successful in promoting their programs and departments and getting the higher-ups on their side. Research reactors are seen as expensive, though few tangible assets at a school can promise as diverse opportunities for as many students and researchers in varied fields as a research reactor can offer. The return on investment on an extant reactor seems higher than most new engineering facilities a school could instead invest money in, and the types of research afforded by a reactor facility is in keeping with other areas of high-interest research right now: biomedical engineering, nanoscale materials, and the like. Part of the issue though is—and this applies to industrial reactors, too—the technology is seen too often as old, outdated, and not germane to trendy new paths in science. While some reactors may indeed be old, they have been updated and are—if operating—clearly functional and meeting the criteria needed to have current licenses. I have listened to university professors and press officers sing the praises of new genetics labs or nanoscale facilities and ignore what research reactors can provide. It's a simple issue of what is currently the sexy, trendy, facilities vs. one that are old news, which would be fine if we were speaking of residential architecture or basketball sneakers, but for science it is absurd to see very intelligent people swept away by something just because it is in vogue. When the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho came online in December of 1951, it ushered in a new era of both energy production and research, but by the 1970s the number of research reactors had reached their apex. By the 1980s, the general public was growing to fear nuclear power due to the influence of misunderstood incidents like Three Mile Island and Hollywood blockbusters that portrayed nuclear in a sinister light. The highly-desired contributions of research in nuclear fields and the research reactors that made such work possible was by the 1990s vastly overlooked by the lay public and even people in scientific fields not directly related to nuclear. Some in industry may have felt the core data they needed from their reactors had already been gained by the time their licenses were up for renewal or the reactors needed costly improvements. 

In other cases, such as the Alan J. Blotcky Reactor Facility located in the basement of the Veterans' Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, the reactor had been funded via grants through Atoms for Peace and had contributed greatly to medical research but eventually it was determined that the cost of maintaining the facility outweighed the benefits of its research—which was mostly medical and not part of a major reactor operator training program. I don't know the full circumstances leading to this unique facility's demise and would be interested in learning more of it. I suspect however that once again, research was leaning in other directions, the money was tight, and the age of the facility was probably seen as a factor.

For anyone interested in a fuller picture of the plight of research reactors, I would direct them to the able resources of the National Organization of Test, Research, and Training Reactors:

There's a lot of information there and I encourage people to check it out. I will be writing more here soon on the unique applications of research and test reactors in industry as well as education, but for now it's essential to understand that beyond the training mission of the campus-located reactors, the actual research applications of these reactors are something we cannot tolerate to lose. We will be losing a vital scientific asset for our nation if we do, just as the cited reports above state. In addition, as so many industries actually do benefit from research reactors, the push to retain these resources should come from across the board. I tend to feel people are not fully advocating in all appropriate ways their concern over the plight of research reactors.