Nuclear reactor shutdown inhibits research, student opportunities

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The Triga Mark II Nuclear Reactor Facility in Ward Hall (Grace Needham | Collegian Media Group)

It’s difficult to tell Kansas State’s nuclear reactor is inoperative just by stepping into the control room with a self-reading pocket dosimeter. In fact, many students believe the smoke billowing from the smokestacks across from Durland Hall is an indicator of the reactor, formally known as the Triga Mark II Nuclear Reactor Facility. However, these smokestacks are not related to the reactor at all; it’s located in Ward Hall a few doors down. Due to contamination in the reactor pool, nuclear engineering option students and external researchers alike have limited access to the facility for classes and experiments.

Community members and students speculated the shutdown was due to corrosion of the stainless steel interior of the reactor. However, Jeremy Roberts, associate professor in mechanical and nuclear engineering, said this is most likely not the case. 

“I don’t even know if one could call it corrosion,” Roberts said. “It’s certainly something that doesn’t belong. It’s orange, and there’s a lot of stainless steel so it was hypothesized early on that maybe it’s some sort of iron oxide rust. That’s not what you want.”

It’s highly unlikely that this is the case, especially since the water in the pool is deionized, Roberts said.

“Deionized water cannot conduct electricity, so they have the water deionized because if it doesn’t conduct electricity, it’s also not doing a lot of other chemically bad stuff,” Roberts said. “The thought was maybe sometime, not long before COVID hit, there was some sort of impurity. If they’re not operating, they don’t have water flow that might keep things cleaner.”

Many in the department have begun to refer to the contaminant as KRUD. This, Roberts said, is in reference to another similar occurrence in Canada.

“There’s another acronym for stuff kind of like this called CRUD,” Roberts said. “It goes back to a reactor at Chalk River, which is one of the Canadian national research centers. They called it CRUD for Chalk River Unidentified Deposit. Well, maybe this is a Kansas Reactor Unidentified Deposit, so it could still be KRUD.”

The consistency of the KRUD is unlike rust, Roberts said. In fact, it has more of a peculiar texture.

“Imagine a rusty pole. That’s hard to clean, but I guess this stuff flakes off,” Roberts said. “Students have been calling it Cheeto dust.”

The KRUD was first identified during a routine inspection of the facility, Alan Cebula, nuclear reactor manager for K-State, said.

“We have periodic inspections that we do on our equipment that’s required by our license, and during that normal process we identified the KRUD,” Cebula said. “There’s a concern that it might affect the integrity of the fuel barrier. We’re shut down out of concern for that, so we’re being cautious so that we can understand what the issue is and make sure that we’re operating safely.”

The nuclear reactor facility is supported by a safeguards committee, which is made up of professors from the physics and engineering departments, Robert Seymour, nuclear reactor supervisor, said. 

“They have expertise in certain different areas that apply to what we do and the safety of what we do,” Seymour said. “We presented our findings to them and the vote was to stop operations until we could resolve the issue and clean up the fuel.”

Some students, like Aaron Alnutt, senior in mechanical engineering, have been extremely disappointed by the shutdown. In fact, Alnutt said he actually dropped his specialization in nuclear engineering due in part to the reactor’s inactivity.

“One of the reasons I ended up dropping it was because it was pretty difficult and I didn’t really know if I wanted to pursue it, but one of the other reasons too was because I knew that the nuclear reactor just wasn’t running,” Alnutt said. “The last two classes I had to do were based on the nuclear reactor itself.” 

Alnutt said he spoke with other students taking these classes, and they voiced their disappointment. 

“I talked to some people who took the lab for the class last semester,” Alnutt said. “They basically said that it’s just a computer simulation, which was not something that I was looking forward to.”

Research and experiments have also been affected, but are still being conducted, Seymour said.

“We have several radioactive sources that — they aren’t as good, but they’ll get the job done if you wait long enough,” Seymour said. “Our experimenters have been using those to get by until we can get this fixed.”

The nuclear engineering department has recognized this problem and is moving forward with a solution, Cebula said.

“Our plan is to attempt to remove the KRUD safely,” Cebula said. “We’ve come up with a written procedure, we have an oversight committee that observes and audits the activities and operations of the facility and then additionally we’re in communication with the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission]. We also have support from the Department of Energy. They run the fuel program for the university research reactors in the country.”

Once this plan is put into motion, Cebula said they are in contact with a company that is well-versed in fuel assessment that will do an inspection. Then, the nuclear engineering department and safeguards committee will reassess the shutdown.

The facility was dreamed up by Henry T. Ward, the department head for chemical engineering in 1950, Seymour said. He lobbied for and founded the first ever undergraduate nuclear engineering program at K-State. The Triga Mark II Nuclear Reactor Facility’s first criticality occurred in 1962. 

Since then, the reactor has been instrumental in countless experiments carried out by students and companies alike. Notable research includes the usage of gamma rays emitted by the reactor to kill viruses, which are then used in vaccines by K-State’s veterinary school, Seymour said. Others have used the facility for neutron imaging purposes.

“We’re working on a little bit finer system so that we can actually see cracks in the grains of metals to see where stress fractures are and how bad they are,” Seymour said. “A lot of material science stuff can be done here.”

The nuclear reactor staff is in the process of installing a new and more sophisticated control panel in addition to cleaning the KRUD, Seymour said. They hope to have the facility up and running again by next semester.

“We should be up by the end of the year,” Seymour said. “We’ve got promising results on what we’re doing and it’s looking good. We’ve got classes to teach in the spring!”

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