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College's nuclear reactor set for upgrades

The pool of the college's nuclear reactor

The pool of the college's nuclear reactor (large image)

Only a few people can squeeze somewhat comfortably into the nuclear reactor's control room; during research experiments, space on the reactor's beamport floor is tight, too. And the basement laboratories, where students do much of their learning, are dark, cramped and date — with some modifications — to the Mechanical Engineering Building's birth in the 1920s.

While the reactor has operated for more than 40 years without much change of scenery, a recent Department of Energy (DOE) grant, coupled with funds for the new Mechanical Engineering Building, will enable some long-awaited updates.

"The money came at the right time," says Reactor Director Bob Agasie, adding that the additional DOE funds mean the college can install more robust systems that will last another 20 years.

Penn State University, the University of Illinois, Purdue University and UW-Madison are sharing the $10 million grant, awarded in September 2002 under the DOE Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education initiative. The funds not only will facilitate reactor upgrades, but also boost educational programs and foster collaborative-research and reactor-sharing efforts at the schools.

In that vein, Agasie hired Michelle Blanchard to lead new educational initiatives. And he is working with an area high school teacher to support an upcoming series of weeklong seminars for students from several schools. In May, students from Evansville High School studied a week in the reactor as part of a program that laid the groundwork for the proposed seminars.

Upgrades to the reactor's infrastructure already have started, too. During the summer, workers disconnected the roof-mounted cooling tower and routed new pumps and heat exchangers into the university's chilled water system. And Agasie purchased and installed new equipment for the reactor's control panel and for students to use in the nuclear instrumentation and reactor laboratory courses.

Plans for the future include building a mezzanine deck on the reactor's north end, replacing the ventilation system, upgrading the reactor-water cleanup and waste-disposal systems, and remodeling the reactor's auxiliary space. "Our offices, the student labs, our sample-preparation and sample-irradiation rooms will be built around the lab and will be more user-friendly," says Agasie.

In addition, there will be a large visitor center that will be both a classroom and a gateway for reactor tours. The center, which could serve as a virtual-tour station if the nation's security level demands it, will have a panoramic view into the reactor control room.

When work on the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Building — a new facility housed within the existing building's historic façade — begins, the reactor's auxiliary space will move into the basement of the ME Building's east wing while a four-story tower is erected in place of the Sawtooth section. During east-wing construction, reactor staff will move into the new tower's basement. Eventually, both locations will house reactor facilities, which will form a U-shape around the reactor itself. Throughout the project, says Agasie, the reactor will remain up and running and true to is mission of research, education and outreach.

While overseeing the security and safety aspects of all of this renovation will occupy lots of Agasie's time, one of his main priorities under the grant is to see the reactor through its relicensing phase, which could take as long as two years. When it's complete, however, the license will extend another 20 years — another reason for installing equipment that will last. "We had to have the core infrastructure to at least get the reactor licensed," he says.

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12/8/2003