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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

WSU nuclear reactor program draws students, researchers – and tourists

The nondescript building sits on the very edge of Washington State University’s campus in Pullman.

An anonymous front door leads visitors through a metal detector and into a sparsely decorated reception area. Everyone must sign in.

The first clue to what’s inside the building is the familiar Cougar logo emblazoned on top of a door-size international sign for radiation. And the lit “Reactor On” sign.

This is the Dodgen Research Facility, home of WSU’s nuclear reactor and the university’s radiation center.

Many students graduate from WSU without knowing the reactor is there, but it’s hardly a secret: As many as 1,500 visitors stop by every year.

“We get college students from universities, high school students, science classes, business groups – many different kinds of visitors,” said Donald Wall, the director of the center for the last 10 years.

Wall went to college to become a lawyer, but a chemistry class he took to fill a science requirement turned him on to nuclear chemistry, a field in which he now holds a doctorate.

The reactor generates 1 million watts of power. Of the 26 university nuclear reactors in the United States, it’s one of 12 that operate at 1 megawatt or larger.

For comparison, the B Reactor at Hanford was built to produce 250 million watts.

“The other big difference is that this is a research reactor,” Wall said. “The reactor at Hanford was built for making plutonium bombs.”

After years of giving reactor tours, Wall has adopted a matter-of-fact way of explaining nuclear radiation to nonscientists.

His dry sense of humor aids understanding, especially when visitors have questions based on Hollywood science fiction.

“Producing giant spiders with irradiation has never been shown,” Wall said. “And I don’t glow in the dark.”

Wall said people often leap straight to nuclear disasters like the one in Chernobyl when he explains what he does for living.

“Nothing like that could ever happen here,” he said.

Like all nuclear reactors, this one is monitored by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and it’s inspected on a regular basis.

The reactor uses analog technology – switches and breakers – which means there’s no software that can crash or computers that can be hacked.

“The technology is simpler than in most cars,” Wall said, adding that the reactor can go from full power to complete shutdown in less than 2 seconds.

Staff wear radiation sensors that look like small security badges, some of which are also placed around the building and on campus. The sensors are collected at regular intervals and sent for testing.

Wall said it may surprise some that sensors placed in other parts of campus continuously produce the highest radiation readings.

“Part of the campus is built on granite and there’s naturally occurring uranium in granite,” Wall said. “That’s where that radiation comes from.”

Potassium, which is commonly found in bananas and also used as a salt substitute, is also radioactive.

“You must have potassium in your diet or you die,” Wall said. He likes to use the banana example to explain that it’s the dose of radiation a person is exposed to that makes the difference.

“The dose makes the poison,” Wall said. “A little bit is harmless, a lot is bad.”

The core of the reactor is submerged in 70,000 gallons of water held in an uncovered concrete tub with 5-foot-thick walls, and yes, the core does glow a dark, icy blue at the bottom of the tub when the reactor is running.

On this Wednesday, the facility’s staff are monitoring 15 commercial research projects at the same time, but students and faculty from other WSU departments also use the reactor.

Dr. Ken Nash is a professor of chemistry who works on more efficiently managing nuclear waste.

He said the campus reactor makes it possible for him to work with elements that are heavier than uranium.

“These are man-made elements that only exist because we know about nuclear science,” Nash said.

Nash said the reactor is also used to create radioactive isotopes that are much easier to track in chemical research.

“If we need them we can have them made right here,” Nash said. “We don’t have to send away for them and wait to have them delivered.”

WSU is a one of few universities where a student can become licensed to operate a nuclear reactor, but that’s the not the main purpose of the program.

“We educate a lot of students who go on to careers in important national security applications,” Wall said. “They get jobs that are designed to protect the country from people who try to smuggle nuclear material across the border.”

Every summer, the radiation department hosts a nuclear forensics summer school session sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security.

Undergraduate students from all over the country spend six weeks researching famous nuclear forensics cases like the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned when radioactive polonium 210 was dropped in his tea at a hotel in London in 2006.

On campus, the radiation department works with many other departments including veterinary medicine and chemistry.

One of the most common questions Wall gets from parents of students is whether the reactor is safe.

“Yes, it’s safe,” Wall said. “I could move my desk in there and work on top of it every day and nothing would happen to me.”

Another common question is what happens to the waste from the reactor.

“We have shipped waste twice: in 1967 and in 2008,” Wall said. “And no more than would fit in the trunk of your car.” The waste goes to a storage facility at the Idaho National Laboratory, but Wall said his personal opinion is it should be recycled.

“It’s good stuff and it’s very expensive,” Wall said.

Because of the program’s national security application, Wall and his staff have been successful in landing grants – million-dollar grants.

Graduate students in WSU’s radiochemistry program typically have their tuition paid for, and they’re coveted by employers before they even graduate, Wall said.

But not all his students are science majors. One history major took the nuclear reactor operator license and moved on to work at a facility in Maryland.

“We stay in touch,” Wall said, “and we joke that he’s probably the highest-paid history major in Maryland.”

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