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UW-Madison professor named first scientific director of national nuclear research facility

Idaho National Laboratory has selected University of Wisconsin-Madison nuclear fuels and materials expert Todd Allen to lead its newly created Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) National Scientific User Facility. “The ATR is the country’s most capable research reactor for doing nuclear fuel and materials development,” says Allen, an assistant professor of engineering physics at the university.

A pressurized light-water reactor, the ATR is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and has operated continuously at Idaho National Laboratory since 1967. Until recently, the U.S. Navy used the reactor for testing nuclear fuels and materials. In April 2007, the DOE designated it as a national scientific user facility to support university, industry and national laboratory research of nuclear fuels and materials.

At UW-Madison, Allen and his students study corrosion and radiation damage in materials for nuclear energy systems. “For determining reactor performance, what you really care about is how the neutrons in a nuclear reactor change materials’ properties,” he says.

On campus, his group uses an ion-beam accelerator to bombard potential reactor materials with high-energy particles. The accelerator gives the researchers an idea of the toll years of life in a nuclear reactor might take on the materials.

Todd R. Allen

Todd R. Allen (large image)

However, says Allen, the ion beam literally just scratches the surface. “It only damages thin films, essentially, on the surface, on the order of 40 micrometers deep,” he says. “And so it limits your ability to measure changes in bulk properties. You still learn a lot—but you can only do the real thing if you’ve got a neutron source.”

That’s where the ATR comes in. With its extremely high neutron flux, the reactor enables researchers to study the effects of intense radiation—the equivalent of years of radiation exposure in just weeks—on nuclear fuels and materials. And since its designation as a national scientific user facility, researchers at universities or other national laboratories now can vie for time and space in the ATR to do just that. “It’s a way to bring people to the laboratory, to bring ideas into the laboratory, and to get university and laboratory staff to interact,” says Allen.

Additional open research time also enables members of the U.S. light-water reactor industry to use the ATR as a research tool.

As ATR director, Allen will help set the technical direction for the facility as its capabilities expand. He will divide his time between Idaho National Laboratory and his faculty position at UW-Madison, and will conduct research at both institutions.

In particular, that research link will be a boon to Allen’s graduate students. “It opens up another very, very nice avenue for us to do tests that allow us to confirm things that we’re going to learn in our university research program,” he says. “For the students, it gives them access to a world-class facility that they might not have had otherwise—it opens up another dimension to what the students can do. And, because it’s at a national lab, it also makes it more likely that people who might hire them later will be aware of what they’re doing as they go through their graduate career.”

Allen will begin his role as ATR director in March 2008.