Arrow-right Camera


WSU’s reactor ‘can’t melt down’

Operator says seismic sensor triggers shutdown

PULLMAN – As workers in Japan struggle to cool a nuclear power plant, the phone has been ringing at Washington State University’s Nuclear Radiation Center.

The 50-year-old reactor, which is kept in a 65,000-gallon tank of purified water, is the only nuclear research reactor in the state of Washington. The center, established in 1961, provides research and teaching opportunities on the campus, and also produces isotopes for national laboratories and private companies across the country. It does not produce electricity for the campus.

WSU’s reactor has a seismic sensor that triggers a shutdown if an earthquake is detected, said Corey Hines, the reactor supervisor at the center.

“This reactor can’t melt down,” Hines said. “The residual heat from the reactor is naturally convected away by the water without any forced cooling. This reactor can go from full power to shutdown in 0.9 seconds.”

Hines added, “We knew there would be backlash from the crisis in Japan. It’s unfortunate but the other alternative is coal-powered plants that run on fossil fuels, which are extremely harmful to the environment. Nuclear energy has to be a part of the solution.”

The United States has more than 25 research reactors including those at Idaho State University and Oregon State University. WSU and OSU have reactors that produce one megawatt of energy. In comparison, the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, the only commercial reactor in the Northwest, can produce nearly 1,200 megawatts. Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station produces more than 4,500 megawatts.

The Oregon State reactor “uses a small quantity of low-enriched fuel so even if a catastrophic event caused all the water to leak out, the reactor would not melt down or explode,” said Lyn Smith-Gloria, a public information specialist at OSU.

In Pullman, the reactor is generally shut down at the end of the day and restarted in the morning after an extensive series of safety checks, Hines said.

“Ninety-five percent of our job is maintaining the reactor,” Hines said. “We do daily and routine system checks. We have an eight-page check procedure before starting up the reactor. We are constantly doing preventative and scheduled maintenance.”

The Columbia Generating Station, which is operated by Energy Northwest, is in the process of renewing its license, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. License review should be completed in June of 2012.

The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

Click here to comment on this story »