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The RRR control console
The control console is where the reactor operator spends their time while the reactor is operating. From this console the operator can monitor and change reactor power and monitor other relevant information about the reactor pool and radiation levels in the reactor bay.
Credit: Jerry Newhouse

Fostering a Culture of Innovation at the Reed Research Reactor

Academic facility inspires and empowers undergraduate to build their own nuclear experiments

by
Ian Black, MSComm, MSc

Ian Black is the assistant editor for LabX. Before joining the team, he obtained a masters in science communication from Laurentian University and an MSc in biology from Brock University....

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When we think about research scientists, we often envision a group of doctors or graduate students hunched over a lab bench or taking samples in the field. While this isn’t necessarily incorrect, it is incomplete. It’s easy to overlook or even forget about other sources of innovative research, such as the massive amount of creativity and ingenuity that can be found among undergraduate students. Seeing this, the lab managers at the Reed Research Reactor (RRR) at Reed College in Portland, OR, have built an incredible program and lab space that fosters the creativity of their undergrads and allows them to design and test their ideas. This approach has yielded a facility that can provide unparalleled training and support as well as assist with cutting edge research and industrial applications.

Image of the Reed Research reactor glowing blue
The reactor operating at 250kW. The blue glow is called Cherenkov Radiation and is the result of particles traveling faster than the local speed of light in the water. Photos don't do it justice; the light has a much more ethereal quality.
Credit: Jerry Newhouse

Radiochemistry at Reed

In 1947, professor Arthur F. Scott developed a radiochemistry program at Reed, which was supported by a sub-critical natural uranium “pickle barrel” reactor (a large barrel containing uranium fuel rods and a neutron source). During the 1950s and ‘60s, Scott became a leader in the field of radiochemistry and by the mid-60s he received a license to build a Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics reactor (TRIGA) from the Atomic Energy Commission. Since its completion in 1968, the TRIGA reactor has been used for research and educational purposes. 

The current TRIGA Mark I reactor at Reed College rests at the bottom of a 25-foot-deep tank and uses zirconium hydride/uranium hydride fuel elements. Able to operate at any power up to 250 kilowatts, the reactor can provide a defined neutron flux and operate for periods ranging from a few minutes to eight hours. 

What makes this reactor truly stand out, however, is its location. Being situated at the relatively small undergraduate school of Reed College has colored the mission of those in charge of the reactor and its associated programs to this very day.

Putting the “training” in TRIGA

In support of the academic goals of Reed College, the RRR offers more than just a facility for cutting edge research, but also a place for hands-on training and education. “We lean very heavily into the ‘T,’ Training [of TRIGA]. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates 31 research and test reactors (RTR), and we regularly account for more than 25 percent of operator licensing exams given across the RTR fleet,” says Jerry Newhouse, director of the RRR. “Teaching and research go hand-in-hand for us. Different types of learning obviously have their place, but an excellent way of learning is by doing.”

It is precisely this focus on training and supporting undergrad research that makes the RRR unique. “No other reactor in the US is as focused on undergraduate involvement as we are,” says Newhouse. “Our students implement our training program, operations schedule, radiation safety program, and maintenance on their own with the reactor operations manager (ROM) and myself providing guidance and perspective when necessary.”

"Rabbit" pneumatic sample transfer system at the RRR
Much of the research done at the RRR uses a process called neutron activation analysis. Most samples irradiated for this process are introduced to the core using the pneumatic transfer system, colloquially called the rabbit system. The rabbit operator sends and receives samples at this station.
Credit: Jerry Newhouse

Roughly a quarter of incoming undergraduate students express interest in the research and educational opportunities provided by the RRR. Newhouse comments, “Prospective operators are required to complete at least one research project using the reactor per semester. Many students complete many more independent research projects driven only by their interest in learning. As of November 2022, we have 32 internal projects completed or in progress.”

One recent project of note involved working with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporations to conduct the first irradiation tests of a new type of radioisotope heater, EmberCore. These tests were to demonstrate that model predictions of the device’s performance were correct.

However, as vital as the RRR is for training and research, it is also used in industrial applications. The types of services a reactor such as the RRR can provide are numerous, ranging from isotope production to radiation damage testing. “At Reed specifically, we have particular interest in trace elemental analysis of environmental and materials samples. We use a process called neutron activation analysis, which can routinely quantify elements that are ppb or even ppt in a sample,” adds Newhouse. 

Finding opportunity in disruption

As with many other facilities, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive disruption to the work being done at the RRR. Unlike some other institutions, however, the RRR had an added twist of managing staff turnover during that time as well. “…We have two full-time staff, a director, and a reactor operations manager,” explains Newhouse. “The director position is typically the more stable of the two, with the previous director serving for nine years and the one previous for 17 years. The previous director left in June 2020, and I was hired in October 2020.”

Rather than buckle under the strain of these twin disruptions, the incoming staff saw an opportunity in the setbacks. The shifts between in-person and online learning gave Newhouse and the ROM, Toria Ellis, the chance to re-evaluate the program and how it’s delivered. “We now put much more emphasis on healthy nuclear safety culture, encouraging undergraduate research as a learning tool, and making the reactor program more accessible to all Reed students,” Newhouse summarizes.

Entrance of the Reed College Chemistry Department
Since the RRR went critical in 1968, it has been associated with the Reed College Chemistry Department. Shown here is the main entrance to the Arthur F. Scott Chemistry Laboratory, named after the reactor's founder and long-time chemistry professor.
Credit: Sydney Stitt

However, turnover is a part of the workflow at RRR. Since the majority of the staff at the RRR are undergraduate students, the reactor loses around 25 percent of their employees every May and has to onboard new staff the following November. To address this, Newhouse indicates that the RRR relies on thorough and robust training programs and procedures. 

The future of the Reed Research Reactor

Traditionally, the RRR has been used to support radiochemistry training and research, but as Newhouse looks to the future, he speculates that supporting environmental science and green technology research is the way forward to staying current. “Exciting applications of applying neutron radiation to environmental samples are on our horizon, and I think in the next few years we’ll start to see some important data coming out of this work.”

In the end, though, the true strength of the RRR will always be the creative and inspiring environment that allows students to discover, invent, and experiment. “I think in many institutions, undergraduates’ capabilities are really overlooked, and here at the RRR we’re showing just what they can do.”