March 10, 2011 in City

WSU nuclear reactor marks 50th year

Kelsey Husky Moscow-Pullman Daily News
 

A 50th anniversary wasn’t celebrated with a bang Monday night, but rather with a glowing blue light in 65,000 gallons of water.

Staff and guests of the Dodgen Nuclear Radiation Center gathered at 9:58 p.m. to watch the reactor reach full power exactly 50 years after it first powered up.

The Washington State University reactor does that almost daily, and it takes 10 to 15 minutes to reach full power.

The center performs research and distributes isotopes to WSU classes and companies across the nation. It’s not used for energy production in the area.

Five of its operators are WSU students, who receive one-on-one, hands-on training. The center is one of 27 research and test reactors in the country, and one of just five or six that allow tours.

“It’s an incredibly safe facility and an incredibly safe design,” said Corey Hines, the reactor’s supervisor.

He said the water surrounding the reactor is like a gigantic water heater, and the water’s not radioactive – employees touch it all the time. Radiation coming off the reactor is blocked by the water, mainly because of the water’s purity.

Hines said employers or those near the center are not at risk of radiation poisoning.

“I get less radiation working here than if I worked outside,” he said.

Gerald Tripard, a former director of the center, told the group it will take a lot of effort to make people recognize that nuclear energy is the energy of the future, not something to be afraid of.

“The generation that was brainwashed against nuclear power has to die off,” he said. “You’re not going to change their minds.”

People wonder what will be done with nuclear waste, he said, and don’t realize the planet is one big nuclear waste dump from a supernova in the past, Tripard said.

“We live on a nuclear waste dump. Our bodies contain nuclear waste from nuclear reactions, and most people don’t know that,” he said.

The center’s current director, Don Wall, said nuclear facilities produce little waste.

About one-fifth of the nation’s electricity comes from nuclear energy, and about half comes from coal.

“Coal is the dirtiest of all the fuels,” he said, because it has mercury, uranium and other chemicals. When burned, its waste goes to a hazardous waste landfill and in the air. Every year, 3,000 to 10,000 people die from respiratory illnesses and other illnesses from breathing in coal fumes, sometimes people living downwind from a plant, Wall said.

“Which one should we be more afraid of? The one that’s killing people every day? Or the one that hasn’t killed anybody for years?” Wall said.


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