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University of Utah has own nuclear reactor tucked away

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The University of Utah nuclear reactor pictured at the Joseph F. Merrill Engineering Building.

The University of Utah nuclear reactor pictured at the Joseph F. Merrill Engineering Building.

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SALT LAKE CITY — With worldwide attention focused on the nuclear crisis in Japan, many Utahns probably haven't realized there is a nuclear reactor in their own state.

It's not in a remote location. It's considered so safe it's allowed to run chain reactions and produce radiation in a building full of students.

Utah's only nuclear reactor is on the campus of the University of Utah, tucked away in a corner of the Merrill Engineering Building. Students passing by a nondescript door might not know that nuclear energy has been produced just a few steps away for more than three decades.

The reactor is used for teaching and research in the University's Nuclear Engineering program. It sits in a tank immersed in nearly 10,000 gallons of water.

It's used only intermittently. Last year it operated a total of less than 69 hours. But it employs the same physics as a big power reactor, according to professor emeritus Gary Sandquist.

"It produces neutrons, it undergoes fission, it has instrumentation to monitor the neutrons," Sandquist said. "Students learn how to bring the reactor up, operate it safely, how to shut it down."

Compared to the utility-scale reactors at big power plants, the U.'s reactor is tiny. The nuclear core is barely the size of a microwave oven, "just 2 feet by 2 feet," Sandquist said.

Its power is so low, 100 kilowatts, that it doesn't even need a pressure vessel to contain it.

"It can't release any pressure because it doesn't build up any pressure," Sandquist said, and it never gets very hot. "It's essentially a little bit hotter than room temperature. The reactor heats the water up from about 65 degrees up to maybe 80 degrees after operating for many hours. So it can't possibly melt down or pose any risk."

Its energy levels are so low that students can actually stand close by while it operates, something that would be impossible in a full-scale power reactor.

"You can physically see the reactor when it's operating," Sandquist said. "That's part of the value of the reactor is that students can actually visually see and move and manipulate things in the reactor while it's operating."

The reactor was first activated in 1975. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission shut it down for a few months in the late 1980s because of concerns about inadequate staffing and safety monitoring. It was allowed to restart after those problems were fixed.

In 2005, ABC's "20-20" program raised questions about security. Undercover researchers for the network tested security at 25 similar reactors around the country. At the U., ABC reported finding unlocked doors, no guards and no metal detectors. At the time, University of Utah officials described the report as exaggerated and said the undercover researchers were actually taken on a public tour. They disputed ABC's conclusions and said the reactor was secure and safe.

In the NRC's latest inspection report, dated July 8, 2010, the reactor won a clean bill of health. The federal inspectors pointed out no safety or security concerns whatever.

"There's absolutely no risk," Sandquist said. "It would probably be a greater risk that we'd have a tsunami from the West Coast that would reach Salt Lake before the reactor would cause any problems."

According to Sandquist, the reactor is currently undergoing a relicensing procedure and is expected to operate for another 20 years.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com