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Theory

science in action

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.  These reason for the discrepancy is that roughly two-thirds of the thermal power generated is due to heat loss from different systems and mechanism required to get heat to electrical power on the grid.

The other type of reactor, research 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?

Its 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.

So 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.  APPLY!