Texas A&M Nuclear Science Center
|Thermal Power||1 MW|
|Construction||January 1, 1959|
|First Criticality||January 1, 1962|
|Initial Cost||US$1.5 million|
|Annual Cost||US$0.9 million|
|Max thermal flux||2.0×1013 n/(cm²·s)|
|Max fast flux||2.0×1011 n/(cm²·s)|
|Cooling||100% natural convection|
|Fuel||uranium zirconium hydride|
|Control Rods||6 rods, B4C|
|Staff / Operators||20 / 11|
There are two nuclear research reactors that serve the Texas A&M University Nuclear Science Center. The older of the two is the AGN-201M model, a low-power teaching reactor. The newer reactor, the TRIGA Mark I, is focused strongly towards research.
This was the first reactor of the Nuclear Engineering program at Texas A&M, built in the 1950s. It was shut down 5 years ago and was recently started back up. The reactor is of a negligible thermal power of 5 watts but achieves criticality, making it a critical assembly.
TRIGA Mark I
This is the main reactor of the NSC, operation began in 1961. Tours are available to the public and it is reported that around 2,000 students participate in a tour each year. In 1999 there were 2,982 visitors.
The reactor is located in a stand-alone facility two and a half miles (4 km) away from the Texas A&M campus and close to an airfield.
This reactor was part of the first line of TRIGA reactors but has a number of features that distinguishes it from the other dozens of TRIGA reactors in use today. It is a 1 megawatt pool-type reactor. It is designed for optimal irradiation of samples and is used to produce a number of radioisotopes for medical and industry applications.
The reactor ran on 70% highly enriched uranium (HEU) until early 2006 when the core was refueled with low enriched uranium as a part of the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative. This was a part of the Bush administration's efforts to minimize the terrorist threat posed by nuclear fuel in civilian applications around the world and constituted the first and only refueling of the reactor ever. In the decades that it had been in operation, the fuel had depleted its U-235 content from 70% to around 60%. The new fuel is somewhere under 20% enriched since it is classified as LEU.
Safety evaluations and events
In an ABC primetime special, the Texas A&M reactor was covered as a part of a "Radioactive Roadtrip". Throughout the airing, comments were made that no guards were present and that one could easily sneak sticks of dynamite into the building right next to the pool of the reactor, prompting a reaction from the University. This is an excerpt of the ABC report:
University Reaction: The reactor is not much of a terrorist threat and security measures are adequate, said James Remlinger, manager of operations at the Nuclear Science Center. He stressed that while the uranium in the reactor core is highly-enriched, it would take "a lot of technology" to make a weapon out of it.
The following are separate nuclear safety related events reported by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the governmental agency that regulates research reactors) that were connected to the NSC.
- On March 15, 2006, the NSC reported a potential overexposure of a worker, prompting an Nuclear Regulatory Commission special inspection. Extraordinary doses to the hand of a worker exceeding the 50 rem (0.5 Sv) yearly limit to extremities were predicted prompting further inspection.
- During a December 4, 2000 shipment where a 1.0 curie (37 GBq) and other sources were being transported, a source was found on top of a shipping container unshielded. This prompted further inquiry by the NRC resulting in a civil penalty being applied.
The following is a very small sample of research projects underway in conjunction with the main reactor. Reference: NSC Homepage
Studying fire ant behavior
Working with faculty from the entomology department, neutron activation analysis has been underway on a number of samples from an ant colony to ascertain the behavior of sharing food. A sample is lowered into the reactor and irradiated with neutrons, thereby activating certain elements, which can then have their relative quantities accurately determined. With this information, entomologists can develop more effective ant poisons and control methods.
- Texas A&M NSC Official Site
- ABC's Radioactive Roadtrip Security Review
- Some of the Universities responses to the ABC's report from the Student Paper
- Conversion from High to Low Enriched Uranium Press Release
- IAEA Database of Reactors http://www.iaea.org/worldatom/rrdb/, data from 2001-02-15
- Binney, S.E.; S.R. Reese, and D.S. Pratt (February 22, 2000). "University Research Reactors: Contributing to the National Scientific and Engineering Infrastructure from 1953 to 2000 and Beyond". National Organization of Test, Research and Training Reactors. Retrieved 2007-04-07.
- NRC: News Release - 2006-NRC Begins Special Inspection at Texas A&M University’s Research Reactor
- NRC: EA-01-029 - Texas A&M Research Reactor