Six Decades of Atom-Smashing at NC State

Raleigh’s “First Temple of the Atom” sprang a leak in July.

North Carolina State University’s nuclear reactor made the national news when the university announced the pool cooling the reactor core had begun leaking.

The school’s nuclear engineering and research program has been making news of one sort or another ever since the 1950s, when NC State became the first university after World War II to operate an on-campus nuclear reactor.

The current PULSTAR reactor, which became operational in 1972, is the fourth the university has built. It’s one of more than 20 college reactors operating around the country.

Photo by Roger Winstead

The PULSTAR functions as a teaching tool for nuclear engineers and also as a radiation source for experiments at the Burlington Nuclear Laboratory.

“The reactor can perform all the tasks of other reactors, but has the added advantage of enhanced radiation intensity,” Ayman Hawari, director of NC state’s nuclear reactor program, told the Record. “For educational applications, it can demo some important reactor-physics concepts.”

The PULSTAR reactor pool sprung a previous leak in the 1990s. Despite high radiation around the leak, the university successfully completed underwater repairs.

In the more recent incident, 10 gallons of water per hour drained out of the 15,000 gallon coolant pool before the university sealed the leak. University News Director Keith Nichols said a total 3,500 gallons leaked out before a repair crew located and patched the weak spot July 13.

Joey Ledford, a public affairs officer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that two small leaks in 20 years isn’t anything that worries the NRC.

“It’s not unusual to have leaks on occasion … We consider it a small leak to begin with,” he said.

The reactor runs around 20 hours per week or 1,000 hours a year. Hawari said the PULSTAR is now online and operating normally again.

Smashing Atoms for School Credit
The program began in 1950, when the college recruited Clifford Beck from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to oversee the creation of the original reactor. Nuclear enthusiasm ran high in the 1950s: boosters predicted atomic power would generate energy too cheap to measure and even vacuum cleaners would run on nuclear energy.

Read More: History of NCSU Nuclear Engineering Program

As recorded in the university’s archives, the 10-kilowatt reactor soon developed corrosion-related fuel leaks, forcing the university to replace it. In 1956, the university upgraded to a more powerful model that would eventually generate 250 kilowatts.

In 1972, NC State changed reactors again, installing the 1-megawatt PULSTAR reactor, and then beginning the multi-year job of decontaminating and decommissioning its predecessor.

The PULSTAR name refers to the reactor’s ability to produce short pulses of intense radiation by going “safely supercritical.”

Hawari said it’s safe because the PULSTAR’s fuel type and the physics of its design counteract the power and temperature surge when it goes supercritical.

The program’s website lists some of the PULSTAR’s research uses:

•Neutron Activation Analysis. By bombarding biological, industrial or geologic samples with a beam of neutrons, researchers can detect 65 different elements at the parts-per-billion concentration level.

•Neutron radiography, which can reveal the interior of objects in more detail than an X-ray.

•Experiments on “ultra-cold” neutrons which display unusual physical properties because they’ve been chilled and slowed down.

The state government puts up around $500,000 a year toward the cost of running the reactor, Hawari said. The program also receives around $1 million a year in research funding, mostly from the federal government. In FY 2010, the federal Department of Energy gave NC State a $1.37 million grant to boost PULSTAR”s power output up to two megawatts.

“The reactor is too small to be used in energy generation,” Hawari said. “Typical electricity-producing reactors are 3,000 times larger than the PULSTAR. The increase in power to two megawatts would allow us to double the intensity of radiation emitted by the core, which would enhance its use in research and science.”

The smallest power-generating nuclear plant in the United States generates 478 megawatts.

In addition to research, NC State has been training nuclear engineers since the 1950s, and opened a full nuclear engineering department in 1963.

U.S. News & World rated the university’s nuclear engineering program seventh best in the country in its 2010 college rankings. The program also offers online virtual classes for students outside the area, some of whom study the PULSTAR through the Internet from as far away as Jordan’s University for Science and Technology.

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