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Renovated Nuclear Reactor Building Opens as World-Class Labs

The four-story building contains 13,200 square feet of laboratories, offices, and conference rooms

by University of Michigan
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More than a decade after the Ford Nuclear Reactor shut down for the last time, the building returned to life Monday (Apr. 3) as the University of Michigan's Nuclear Engineering Laboratory.

Inside it, researchers in the nation's top-ranked nuclear engineering program will focus on advancing nuclear security, nonproliferation, safety, and energy.

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The equipment that the new lab will house includes a high-resolution system for imaging coolant flow in reactors in unprecedented detail, and an accelerator that will be used in development of faster, more accurate ways to identify nuclear materials. 

"This new Nuclear Engineering Laboratory building is the culmination of some seven years of planning, design, and construction," said Ronald Gilgenbach, the Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professor and chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences.

The Nuclear Engineering LaboratoryThe Nuclear Engineering Laboratory on North Campus.Photo credit: Joseph Xu, College of Engineering"The laboratories in this building will provide the world's finest university facilities for research in the fields of nuclear measurements for nonproliferation, thermal hydraulics for nuclear reactor safety, and advanced radiation detector development."

The $12.4 million renovation, which began in 2015, is made possible in large part by Bob and Betty Beyster, who gave the first $5 million for the project. Bob Beyster received bachelor's degrees in engineering physics and engineering math from U-M in 1945. He earned master's and doctoral degrees in physics at U-M in 1947 and 1950, respectively.

Mary Ann Beyster, daughter of Bob and Betty Beyster and president of the Foundation for Enterprise Development, spoke at the building opening.

"Dad's company, Science Applications International Corp., addressed nationally important nuclear priorities for the federal government from day one and expanded IT technical service to the country and the private sector over its approaching five decades," Mary Ann Beyster said.

"He would be incredibly impressed by what we see here today. His investment in the future, along with others, has turned into a three-dimensional space where researchers can address critically important issues for this nation and the world."

The four-story building contains 13,200 square feet of laboratories, offices, and conference rooms. Inside it:

• The Glenn F. Knoll Nuclear Measurements Laboratory will commemorate a leader in the field of nuclear measurements and a beloved former nuclear engineering and radiological sciences professor, department chair and interim dean of the College of Engineering. Knoll earned his PhD from the NERS department in 1963. Zhong He and David Wehe, both professors of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, will build and test gamma ray cameras for detecting nuclear materials.

• The Harold N. Cohn Conference Room will provide formal discussion space overlooking the reflecting pool given to the college by the class of 1947, of which Cohn was a member. He received his bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering that year.

• The John S. King Student Collaboratory will serve as an informal space for students to work together and discuss ideas with one another and with faculty. Back when the Ford Nuclear Reactor was new, King led the effort to set up a world-class research program for the study of material structures using neutrons produced in the reactor. King earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Princeton, followed at U-M by a bachelor's in engineering in 1948, and then master's and doctoral degrees in 1949 and 1953, respectively.

• Sara Pozzi, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, will house her Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation group in the new lab space. The radiation detection methods developed under the Consortium for Verification Technology—led by Pozzi, Wehe, and and Shaun Clarke, associate research scientist—are important for efforts to ensure that nuclear materials aren't used as weapons. Pozzi's group is installing a new accelerator that will shoot electrons or gamma rays into nuclear materials, causing them to emit more radiation. This technique, known as active interrogation, can enable faster, more accurate identification of nuclear materials.

• Annalisa Manera, associate professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, and Victor Petrov, assistant research scientist, will study how steam and water flow at high pressure through complex reactor components such as fuel bundles. Their work will explore ways to improve the safety and economics of nuclear reactors. Their research group has developed and built a high-resolution imaging system that utilizes "gamma tomography" to resolve details as small as 1 millimeter. Measurements of the steam-water flow structure at this level will shed light on coolant flow inside current and advanced reactors and will help improve the modeling of coolant flow in virtual reactors.

"We are the only thermal-hydraulics group in the country with such an imaging system," Manera said. "It is exciting that we will soon be able to produce experimental data everybody in our field is waiting for."

• Michael Atzmon, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, will investigate amorphous materials, which have relevance to radiation damage. His group explores the foundations of their material properties.

• Igor Jovanovic, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, will develop a new lab using lasers to detect radioactive materials.

Sara Pozzi (above) and Annalisa Manera (below) speak about their work in videos that were filmed in 2015, before they moved into the new Nuclear Engineering Laboratory. Video credits: University of Michigan

The former reactor space, thoroughly cleared of radioactive residues, is well suited to nuclear engineering research because the thick walls are designed to stop radiation—built-in protection for people inside and out of the building. While the reactor was once the centerpiece of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, which focused on developing peaceful uses of the atom, the spirit of its founders will live on in the Nuclear Engineering Laboratories.

"Michigan's leadership in nuclear engineering goes back to the dawn of the field, as the first degree program of its kind. Michigan's research is spurring progress in nuclear power production through reactor safety and advanced reactor designs, and is leading the development of state-of-the-art sensors for nuclear nonproliferation," said Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, and the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of aerospace engineering.

The new facilities are also made possible by $800,000 in gifts from Gladys Hetzner Knoll, who received a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1978 and a master's degree in 1980, and is the widow of Glenn Knoll; the estate of Harold N. Cohn; and the family and friends of John S. King.