Nuclear engineering department receives $1.5 million grant

Saqr Alshogeathri, masters student in nuclear engineering, gazes fifty feet down into the blue glow eminating from K-State's nuclear reactor at the bottom of the water pool while giving a tour of the reactor facility, housed in the octagonal structure on the backside of Ward Hall, to prospective nuclear engineering students Monday afternoon. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a $1.5 million Nuclear Engineering University Partnerships grant to the university to upgrade the control consoles and detectors for its TRIGA Mk II reactor, which is used primarily for research. The controls were last upgraded in the 1990s with hand-me-down components. (Parker Robb | The Collegian)

The Nuclear Engineering University Partnerships Program recently received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to upgrade its reactor, thanks to Jeffery Geuther, manager of K-State’s nuclear reactor and personal investigator of the reactor upgrading project.

“We are upgrading the console for the research reactor we have here,” Bill Dunn, head of the nuclear engineering department, said. “Technology for the control console was rather dated, so we are upgrading that to more modern digital electronics and components.”

K-State’s nuclear reactor is the only university research reactor in the Midwest, so the application process was not difficult, according to Jack Bever, junior in industrial engineering.

“Since K-State has the only research reactor in the Midwest, it is good to see that the nuclear department is going to be able to upgrade it for further and more improved research capabilities,” Bever said. “Especially because K-State is pushing to become a more research-intensive university in the next few years.”

According to Geuther, application for the grant involved describing the educational missions for the reactor.

What we did to apply was write an application that described the educational outreach and research missions of the reactor,” Geuther said. “It was easy to demonstrate how having a more reliable, more modern control panel would affect the ability of our reactor to fulfill its research.”

According to Geuther, although the application process was not difficult, a grant that large is still significant for the nuclear engineering department; typically only one award per year is made nationwide to research reactors with the magnitude of K-State’s reactor.

“The Department of Energy decided that the K-State reactor was worth supporting to that extent,” Geuther said. “It was really time for us to receive this large (of) grant.”

K-State’s nuclear reactor is a TRIGA Mark II. TRIGA stands for Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics, which means the reactor is used for production of radioisotopes for medicine and industry, treatment of tumors, nondestructive testing, basic research on the properties of matter and for education and training.

“The reactor is used primarily as a source of radiation—neutron radiation primarily—but also gamma radiation,” Dunn said.

The reactor is also used for a wide range of other things, such as neutron activation analysis and neutron radiography. It can also be used to test new detectors and their characteristics, efficiency and quality and creates radioisotopes for experiments.

Students and staff have personally upgraded the reactor on a smaller scale themselves in the past. Dunn said when the nuclear department got an increase on its licensed power, students and staff had to make changes to the control rod.

According to Dunn, the nuclear department’s research reactor on campus is one of only about 24 university reactors in the country, making this grant a significant one for research purposes.

“We are licensed to operate up to 1.25 megawatts,” Dunn said. “That means you can get more neutrons for the radiations that take place, and so you can get better quality radiographs and things like that.”

One thing that makes this reactor unique is that it can be pulsed. This means that the power can go from its regular, steady-state power to a significantly higher level for a short amount of time, and then the power level rises and goes back down almost instantaneously, according to Dunn. Operators can get very high neutron fluxes out of the reactor as a result of this.

“It’s kind of a dramatic event when that happens,” Dunn said. “The reactor, as it operates, gives off a globe called Cerenkov radiation, and when you pulse the reactor you can get a very bright flash of Cerenkov radiation.”

This bright blue flash of light signifies that the charged particles in the reactor are moving faster than the speed of light. It is similar to when a sonic boom is created when a jet breaks the sound barrier, according to

“(They) have an incredibly high kinetic energy to the extent that their speed exceeds the speed of light and water, so as they enter the water they have to give up that energy, and they give it up in the form of the blue light,” Geuther said.

The upgrade is going to take at least a year before it is completed, since most of it has to be done in the offseason of school when the reactor isn’t being used as much, according to Dunn.

“First of all it has to be designed, and a lot of it will be constructed offsite, and then components will be shipped here,” Dunn said. “(Then) when the reactor isn’t used quite as much, we will change out the old equipment and put in the new.”