Recently, rumors have circulated regarding the presence of a nuclear reactor on the UNM campus, causing a mixture of interest and concern.
As it turns out, a small instructional and research reactor has resided on campus for 50 years, but the potential danger surrounding it seems to be minimal.
UNM has been home to the AGN-201M nuclear training reactor since 1966, offering students a unique learning experience in nuclear engineering. Last month, the UNM Nuclear Engineering Department celebrated a half-century of having the reactor on campus.
According to UNM Chief Reactor Supervisor Robert Busch, the AGN-201M reactor was originally made and assembled in the late 1950s in San Ramon, California, by Aerojet General Nucleonics.
The training reactor was originally used at the University of California, Berkeley, but was moved to UNM in the 1960s after UC Berkeley upgraded to a larger training reactor.
Today the reactor is located in the UNM engineering complex on the southwest area of campus.
Busch said the reactor uses Uranium-235, and emits only five watts of thermal energy.
“The reactor was designed for training,” Busch said. “If you were to convert it to electricity you might be able to light a small LED.”
The reactor, Busch said, produces almost zero fission products, nor does the fuel ever diminish or have to be replaced, because it is operating at such a low power.
“Because (the reactor operates at such a low power) and because we don’t operate 24/7, it basically means that we have no fission products or real degradation of the fuel. Yes, we are burning up Uranium-235 atoms every time we work, but we don’t burn up more than, say, a billion neutrons during operation,” Busch said.
Within the last 50 years, Busch estimates that only about a billionth of the fuel inventory has been burned. Not only is the amount of total fuel inside the AGN-201M reactor 330 times smaller than a commercial reactor, but the amount of nuclear reactions is about 100 quintillion times less than that of a commercial reactor.
“What that means is that we are one of the only facilities in the world where we can actually safely handle our fuel,” Busch said. “In a normal reactor, once you start burning it you build up fission products. These fission products decay and give off radiation and it become a dangerous environment.”
Every year, the first experiment the Nuclear Engineering Department does with its students — after dressing up in their “bunny suits,” and under the direct supervision of faculty — is to actually take out the reactor core, learn how to safely handle radioactive materials and learn how to properly place the core back into the reactor.
“One of the most important things we want to get across to students is if you are going to be working in radioactive environments, you have to understand what your response is to different radiation levels,” Busch said. “Sometimes they’re going to be asked to work in what other people might think is a higher radiation environment.”
Busch said the exciting part about having a reactor on campus is that students get to learn how they feel about being in a somewhat radioactive environment at times — which is something that really cannot be simulated.
However, to be clear, when the reactor is not open and operating, the radiation exposure is negligible and hardly above background radiation, if above background at all, Busch said.
Although the AGN-201M reactor is only a training reactor, it is still monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Busch Said.
The NRC has a plethora of safety and licensing regulations for all reactors in their oversight.
According to the NRC, “Prior to September 11, 2001, all reactors had security plans or procedures and emergency plans as required by NRC regulations. Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the NRC advised licensees to consider taking additional security measures.”
The reactor is still kept under tight lock and key. The Daily Lobo’s reporter had to undergo a background check to see it, and the University forbids photos to be taken.
Moreover, according to the NRC and Busch, the training reactors have a number of different safety features to prevent accidents.
According to the NRC, “These reactors have fail-safe shutdown systems that monitor facility conditions, and before an unsafe condition occurs, control rods can be used to rapidly reduce the reactor power level. In addition, many of these reactors operate on a very limited schedule and have a limited amount of radioactive material on hand at any given time.”
Stephanie Brabson, a senior in the Nuclear Engineering Department, said working on the UNM AGN-201M has been an invaluable experience.
“It has allowed me to learn how all of the physics of nuclear engineering is applied in real time,” she said. “Learning concepts from a book is fine, but everything really gets cemented in when you’re able to see those concepts happening before your eyes.”
Brabson said she is also never concerned about radioactive exposure because it is negligible at the AGN-201M site.
“The reactor is tiny and contains very little uranium, so the danger just really isn’t there. Also, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visits every year to make sure the reactor and its operation are in compliance with national standards, and we are always well below any exposure limits,” Brabson said.
Brabson encouraged students to pursue degrees in the Nuclear Engineering Department — or in STEM fields in general, as they provide a huge breadth of knowledge that can’t all possibly be covered in a college setting.
“This degree encompasses a little bit from every single engineering discipline,” she said. “We learn about materials, circuits, molecular physics, thermal hydraulics, and coding to model all of this. We come out of the program knowing a little bit about everything, and a lot about nuclear, so we’re able to communicate with other engineers about just about anything.”
Jonathan Natvig is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Natvig99.