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Consortium to design next-generation nuclear research reactors

Jim Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
(217) 244-1073;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has teamed with other Big Ten Universities to enhance existing university research reactor facilities and to design the next generation of nuclear reactors for research and education.

The Consortium of Big Ten University Research and Training Reactors includes Illinois, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Purdue University. The consortium – one of four national centers funded under DOE’s new Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education program – will receive $1.97 million in its first year and is expected to receive $2.6 million per year for five years.

"University research reactors are becoming scarce, but remain an extremely important resource in a nation that is becoming more and more nuclear," said James F. Stubbins, the head of the nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering department at Illinois. "The need for advanced reactor facilities and for highly trained nuclear engineers is an ongoing concern."

Half the electricity in Illinois is generated by nuclear power plants, Stubbins said. "Nuclear power reduces our dependence on foreign oil, reduces the need for finding additional coal and oil reserves, and reduces the production of greenhouse gases."

But the fleet of current university reactors is aging – many are 30 or 40 years old – and becoming dated as research and teaching tools.

"If we are to meet the energy, environmental and medical challenges of the future, then initiatives like these are absolutely critical to preparing the next generation of nuclear engineers and scientists," Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said in a DOE statement.

The consortium is being led by Penn State, home of the first non-military research reactor in the nation. Of the four collaborating universities, three have operating reactors. (The Illinois 1.3 Megawatt research reactor was placed in safe storage nearly four years ago and is not in use.) Part of the grant will go toward upgrading the operating reactors by adding modern scientific instrumentation that all consortium members can use.

Another portion of the grant will be devoted to a significant outreach effort to students and the general public. Included in that effort will be the development of specific Web-based course materials.

Illinois will take the lead in looking at the next generation of university research reactors and developing tools for advancing research reactor technology.

"Recent advances have created exciting new opportunities for using research reactors in fields ranging from archeology to materials science," Stubbins said. "Because the usages are different, the configuration of future reactors should be different."

Nuclear fission reactions that occur inside the reactors cause an atom’s nucleus to split, yielding new nuclei and subatomic particles called neutrons.

"Much of the current work utilizes neutron beam lines – where neutrons are guided out of the reactor core to experimental locations," Stubbins said. "The intensity of the neutrons depends on how close you can get to the reactor core."

In current university reactors, a lot of neutrons are lost because experimentalists can’t get close enough to the core, Stubbins said. "We’ll correct this problem in the design of a future reactor."

Each of the consortia in DOE’s Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education program will focus on a different aspect of a project to improve university research reactors and nuclear engineering programs.

Illinois will also receive a $48,000 matching grant for the purchase of new equipment and to further support student and faculty research.