Washington State University
teaching, research, isotope production

Building the Center & Expansion

The Nuclear Radiation Center at Washington State University was established in 1961 as an all-university facility to provide an on-campus nuclear reactor and to provide facilities for nuclear-related educational and research programs for the entire campus.  The facility was initially financed by a $300,000 matching-fund grant from the National Science Foundation.  Funds to purchase the first fuel for the nuclear reactor were provided by means of a $32,000 US Atomic Energy Commission grant.  In about 1963 an additional grant for $110,000 was obtained from the AEC to purchase laboratory equipment for the Nuclear Radiation Center.  The total capital investment in the facility, reactor, and laboratory equipment up to 1965 amounted to $850,000 of which $408,000 was provided by the State of Washington.

In 1966 the initial 100 KW plate-type fueled nuclear reactor at the Nuclear Radiation Center was upgraded to a 1,000 KW TRIGA-type reactor with a pulsing capability.  Funds for the conversion were provided by a $135,000 grant from the US Atomic Energy Commission and a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.  During the period 1967 to 1970 the AEC provided $561,700 in fuel support for the operation of the WSU TRIGA reactor under the AEC University Reactor Fuel Assistance Program.

In 1969 the Nuclear Radiation Center facilities were increased from 7,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet of laboratory space with the aid of a $40,000 National Science Foundation matching funds grant.  In 1975 the WSU TRIGA reactor core was partially upgraded to a new type of long-lived reactor fuel (FLIP) with $72,000 in funds from the US Atomic Energy Commission.  The upgrading was completed in 1978 with an additional $182,000 for FLIP fuel from the US Department of Energy.

Core Conversions

Under the direction of Dr. Harold Dodgen the Nuclear Reactor Project at Washington State College culminated in completion of the facility and reactor startup in March of 1961.  This original core was a materials test reactor core utilizing plate type fuel at a power of 100 kW.  We just celebrated our 60th anniversary since that first criticality.  You can see pictures here of Dr. Dodgen, the original building prior to expansion is just above him, and also some structural and core components as installed for the first time in the reactor pool, some of which are still used today are also shown here.

In July of 1967, the MTR plate type fuel was replaced with TRIGA rod type fuel in 4 rod clusters.  TRIGA is the type of general atomics fuel used in the core utilizing a uranium zirconium hydride matrix with inherent safety features built in to the fuel itself.  That new core, combined with a pool cooling system, pulsing control rod, and new control panel was the path to a 1 MW operational upgrade with a TRIGA core.  This core operated on a mixture of high enriched and low enriched uranium until 2008, when it was converted to a mixture of two LEU fuel types.  The facility as it stands now, which the Nuclear Science Center operates, is a nuclear reactor facility with attached research spaces and office spaces.  The Nuclear Radiation Center name was changed to Nuclear Science Center (NSC) to better reflect the work done at this facility

Reactor Mission & Projects

Nuclear & Chemical Science (NUCS) Core Facility, a WSU user facility

Now onto the user facility, which is within the confines of the Dodgen Facility but outside of daily reactor operations.  With around 18,000 sq ft of lab and office space, every lab in the building can be used as a nuclear chemistry laboratory.  We have staff members tasked and trained in nuclear chemistry, instrumentation, experiment design, data collection, and analysis to help researchers with their projects.

The NSC User Facility was created in 2019 to encourage direct collaboration within the facility and provide a home for faculty to do nuclear research.  The pressure points associated research in the nuclear field, and really any research field tend to be things like compliance activities, training, facility maintenance, operations costs, instrumentation, and services administration.  The push behind operation of the facility as a user facility is to leverage each others strengths and to collaboratively work towards successful projects.  The burden of many of the pressure points are shared or managed with the NSC onsite staff.  Our staff has the expertise and training due to the experience in operations to alleviate some of these bottlenecks to progress in research and data gathering. 

Direct interaction with facility staff and researchers afforded to faculty and clients in this model allow for burden sharing and to flesh out research projects.  We have available the ability to perform and consult on pre-award data gathering and workup, proposal writing, and – a resource I’m excited about – using our developed NSC client base to forge new relationships between faculty and external entities. 

The first steps in our approach have been to strengthen ties between the NSC and academic units on campus, specifically, chemistry, engineering, material science, and physics.  The user facility now holds 2 faculty members with research projects – these include full time spaces dedicated to those faculty, in addition to a collaborative instrumentation laboratory we are calling the radiation science lab or RSL. 

The RSL instrumentation lab is supported by NSC staff knowledgeable in nuclear regulations, data collection, and RAM shipping, can be used to run radioactive samples not otherwise capable on other parts of campus.  The benefit of this user model is that the hardware and infrastructure is maintained by NSC staff oversight and guidance, meaning we do all of the safety and compliance activities, and work with researchers to design experiments, help write proposals, and the staff can perform experiments too!

World-Class Epithermal Neutron Beam Facility

A collaborative team from Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Washington State University has constructed a boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT) epithermal beamline in the thermal column region of the WSU Triga reactor.  This presentation will show the installation of the filter and collimator.  The filter consists of a high-efficiency, neutron moderating and filtering material, FLUENTAL™, developed by the Technical Research Center of Finland.  The collimator is a conical structure consisting of 16 barrel-like staves of bismuth resting on borated polyethylene plates and two rows of lead bricks.  The overall collimator/filter consists of approximately 6,273 Kg (13,800) lb) of lead (500 bricks), 5,227 kg (11,500 lb) of aluminum oxide (1,300 blocks), 1,045 kg (2,300 lb) bismuth and 804.5 kg (1770 lb) of FLUENTAL™.

Teaching & Research

The WSU Nuclear Radiation Center, a WSU department within the Office of Research and located in the Dodgen Research Facility, participates in nationally and internationally pertinent research, isotope production, and various community education initiatives benefiting WSU, other university institutions, and national and worldwide clients. The department and facility is utilized by a variety of fields of study including: nuclear engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, environmental sciences, archaeology, geology, and traditional and nuclear forensics. We provide laboratory space and equipment for the WSU Chemistry Department Radiochemistry Lab Sections, in addition to utilization of the reactor facility.

In addition to the WSU Nuclear Radiation Center providing researchers an economical teaching and research tool, we train WSU students to become U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed Reactor Operators and Senior Reactor Operators at the WSU Reactor. This requires the potential operator to become an expert in reactor theory, neutron instrumentation, neutron transport theory, electrical and pumping systems, environmental compliance, and Local/State/Federal regulations. Our Reactor Operators and Senior Reactor Operators are tour guides, operations engineers, radioactive material handlers, experiment advisors, safety compliance officers, research associates, emergency coordinators, and radiation control advisors all rolled into one.

Community outreach and education is considered one of the most powerful and influential missions of our department. That’s why we offer tours of the facility and reactor to the community, students, teachers, and professors, free of charge. We believe that education about what we do and what this facility contributes to the national and international community is paramount, and we encourage the tour participants to ask many questions. More information on how to schedule a tour can be found on the tours tab.

The Nuclear Science Center prepares WSU students for the nuclear workforce through hands on experience with reactor operations and in their own research projects with faculty. Since the RO training began in 2011, the program has successfully trained over 55 students that have received their reactor operator license from the U.S. NRC for operation of this reactor.  In fact, OVER 60% of all licensed operators have been trained at the facility since 2008 – we consider this work mission critical to nuclear workforce development.

The student reactor operator training takes WSU undergraduates of any discipline, gives them the tools they need, and teaches them from the ground up how to safely operate and maintain the WSU reactor.  They learn about reactor theory, radiation protection, health physics, emergency planning, experiment design and safety analysis, and the regulations that govern the operation of the facility.  They train alongside NSC staff reactor operators and senior operators.  They are team members with other student operators.  Students are a valuable resource for us as they work to solve problems, plan irradiations, perform maintenance, teach, and give facility tours to the public. 

It’s important to note that our student trainees and student reactor operators are treated the same as any other reactor operator at the facility.  We know it is important that students gain real-world experience working with career professionals in order to best position them for their future goals.  When they leave our facility after they graduate WSU, they have at least one year post license experience in a working nuclear research environment.  This experience gives them impactful projects and deliverables that they must meet.  They have generally done internships with our clients over the summer at places like INL, or at the U.S. NRC.  They have shown hardworking skillsets in nuclear chemitrsy, technology, and safety and emergency preparedness and planning.  We are all proud that they are going out into the world trained in nuclear science work, and hopefully have been shaped by good experiences and confidence building here at the NSC.

Neutron Flux

Core PositionThermal Flux (n/cm2-sec)Epithermal Flux (n/cm2-sec)
C86.82 x 10122.81 x 1011
D87.20 x 10121.77 x 1011
E84.69 x 10121.31 x 1011
Beamline1.5 x 109
Neutron fluxes in typical irradiation positions at 1 MW reactor operation. Determined by standard method XX. Percent errors associated with flux measurements are 2-4%. The WSU reactor has a total of 15 positions available for irradiations.

The WSU reactor can produce isotopes in a variety of physical and chemical forms and activities by neutron irradiation.  Our staff has the capability to walk through the project step-by-step to meet your deadlines.  To begin a new project with us, send an email to the department including your contact information, type of project, and as much information that you can give us on what you want to achieve.

Radiotracer production

Research materials require high purity and precision to produce reliable results. Our reactor and facilities produce research radiotracers for WSU departments at low cost, fast turnaround, and superior service.  We are capable of shipping radiotracers offsite to other institutions, as well as within WSU to meet the needs of our clients.

Isotope production

A non-trivial amount of the world’s isotope production capabilities are produced in the fleet of research reactors, many of which are located here in the USA. The NSC reactor staff are uniquely qualified to produce commercial quantity and grade radioisotopes for industrial applications.  Our staff and administrators are experienced in production lines of many currently available radioisotopes and are knowledgeable in logistics and shipping of these isotopes to various sites throughout the country.

Staffing Capabilities

The methods currently available to the NSC staff, including those which are available for use outside of the Center but within WSU, are included in the below subsections.

WSU employs a team of fabrications specialists and shop personnel through the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Technical Services.  Technical Services personnel have experience in designing and fabricating a variety of items, including those reactor grade items used at the NSC.  These services are available for utilization by the NSC under a fee for service purchase order or under hourly rates at WSU Technical Services.

The NSC employs a 0.5 FTE Research Operations Engineer with expertise in electrical engineering.  This person is located at WSU Technical Services; however, 0.5 FTE is available to the NSC.  The electrical engineer can do design and fabrication of a variety of electrical components.

Shipping Available for Immediate Use

The NSC reactor operations staff is U.S. Department of Transportation trained to ship hazardous material and has function specific training in the preparation, shipment, and testing in the shipment of RAM and the function requirements for Type 7A shipping package design and testing.  The reactor operations staff has previous experience with the design and testing of these packages, and does so for Type 7A shipment packages currently in use.

  • Type A, solids only
  • Type A, solids & liquids
  • Limited Quantity, solids, liquids, and & gasses

Reactor Irradiations

 The core started out as a materials test reactor with plate-type fuel, and those reactors were built with very large reactor pools along with a reactor core suspended on a bridge that can move around in the pool.  Ours moves east to west on rails where the core structure is suspended below the bridge.  All told we have 15 irradiation positions in core that can be inserted or removed at power.  Each of these positions can have a different experiment in them, and many of them run multiple irradiations in a single location simultaneously.

The in-core experiment irradiations are performed by lowering the samples into a wet tube or holder that keeps the samples positioned in the area of highest flux.  Since the experiments are going in pool, they are water tight and usually double or triple contained.  The experiments then sit in the flux for the desired irradiation time and are pulled out either at power or after shutdown and taken out of the pool and shipped, or allowed to cool and await shipment.

Epithermal Beam

The lower graphic is an illustration of our beamline facility.  It was originally constructed in 2001 and was built as an epithermal neutron beam, specifically for boron neutron capture therapy.  The reactor core traverses in the east/west (left/right in the diagram) and lines up against the western most wall of the pool to provide neutrons to the filtering assembly which can be columnated down to a 2 inch diameter.  The beam exits the columnator into a treatment area with a beamstop about 8 feet behind the filtered assembly.  This facility is useful for beamline characterization experiments, flux tailored experiments, and experiments that may not be able to be inserted in the water next to the reactor core – such as temperature dependent experiments or those experiments requiring fine temperature control.

What does a research nuclear reactor do?

There are essentially two types of reactors.   One type produces power for the purposes of electricity generation.  These power reactors are on the scale of 3000 MW in thermal power generation with 1000 MW of electrical power generated.  The reason for the discrepancy is that roughly two-thirds of the thermal power generated is due to heat loss from different systems and mechanisms required to get heat to electrical power on the grid.

TResearch reactors, are responsible for teaching, research, and isotope production.  These reactors are by in large sited at universities here in the U.S.  Research reactors generate power (heat) and excess neutrons.  They use their neutrons to make radioactive isotopes that are used in medical procedures and imaging, emergency preparedness training, detector calibrations, oil field use, radioactive source generation for instruments, and silicon processing for semiconductors, among many others.

How does the reactor work?

It’s all about fission.  Fission means “to break apart.”  In the case of the NSC TRIGA reactor, what breaks apart or fissions is uranium-235 (U-235).  Uranium makes up a large portion of our fuel, and when it absorbs a neutron, those U-235 atoms will, in about one out of every five times, break apart.  This fission event releases massive amounts of energy, and on average 2.42 neutrons per fission.

How much energy?

When you burn one molecule of coal, generate roughly 4 electron volts (eV) worth of energy.  To put that into perspective, when you fission one atom of U-235, you generate 200,000,000 eV worth of energy.  Atomic fission is powerful and extremely energy-dense.

Do you generate electricity for WSU?

We generate power, not electricity.  The purpose of our reactor is to generate neutrons in excess quantities that are used for isotope production and research.

Still reading this?  Have more questions?

You should probably apply to be a reactor operator trainee.