Recently, I had a tour of the only working fission reactor in Utah. I have been to some other commercial power reactors; Palo Verde in Arizona, San Onofre in California, and Browns Ferry in Alabama. Or course, visiting the other reactors was always from the outside. I wanted to see one up close.
I went to the University of Utah (with some family members) and received a tour of their Triga research reactor. I was hoping to see the Cherenkov radiation (the blue glow) seen in working reactors, but I was already pushing my luck. The reactor was not operating the day I went. The thermal output of the reactor is 100 kW, but the real point of the reactor is to produce a neutron flux inside the core that can be used for neutron activation analysis (NAA).
The NAA samples are delivered to the core of the reactor through a pneumatically operated tube called the “rabbit”. It is very similar to the pneumatic tube that is used in drive up banking. I thought it was quite novel.
The nuclear engineering program at the U has been reinvigorated in the last couple of years. They hired a reactor operator with experience from the US Navy nuclear program, who also has commercial nuclear operating experience.
We were able to stand over the reactor and look through the water and see the core at the bottom of the tank. Ryan (the licensed operator and tour guide) also showed us the control room and explained the controls to us. We were not permitted to take photographs, but this is similar what the reactor looked like. BTW, there are some 70 Triga reactors worldwide, so there are plenty of photographs of them on the web. This one is of the Triga at Kansas State University.
After the tour, we were chatting with Ryan and he explained that an Ohio class submarine has a reactor about the size of a refrigerator that is able to push the submarine around the world (submerged) for 20 years without refueling. That is a great testament to the power contained in uranium and the characteristic of nuclear power that I keep harping about.
If you live in Utah, you might want to schedule your own tour. You can contact Ryan here.