The Nuclear Reactor Lab celebrates 60 years of research and education at Ohio State

Posted: March 6, 2021

In 1960, The Ohio State University Research Reactor was built with the help of a $217,100 grant from the Atomic Energy Commission to establish a small-scale research reactor. On March 6, 1961 the Ohio State reactor first went critical – when the reactor was, in essence, first turned on and began to have self-sustaining reactions. This year the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL) celebrates the 60-year anniversary of its initial criticality.

Reactor Construction
Reactor construction

The Ohio State reactor is the only research reactor in the state of Ohio, and one of just 24 research reactors located on a college campus. From its origin, the reactor was a 10-kilowatt training reactor used for research and the training of engineering, chemistry and physics students.

In its early years the reactor’s core used high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. In 1988, the reactor converted its fuel source, becoming only the second reactor in the United States to use proliferation-proof low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. Four years later, the reactor’s power was upgraded from 10-kilowatts to the 500-kilowatts it currently operates at today. This opened the door for expanded avenues in experimentation and research.          

“What started as a 10-kilowatt training reactor and is now the only operating research reactor in the State of Ohio, NRL continues to be a vital technical and physical asset providing services to allow advancement in materials, medicine, manufacturing, and nuclear technology related industries, not only in Ohio, but nationally,” said College of Engineering Associate Dean for Research Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska.

The mission for the nuclear reactor is to produce neutrons and radiation for research support, industry service and education of reactor dynamics through experiments and demonstrations.

A reactor operator is in the control room explaining the reactor’s systems to a group of students. The reactor’s power is controlled by raising and lowering the neutron-absorbing control rods. When they are raised, the reactor becomes critical and sustains a nuclear reaction. When they are lowered completely, the reaction is stopped.
A reactor operator is in the control room explaining the reactor’s systems to a group of students. The reactor’s power is controlled by raising and lowering the neutron-absorbing control rods. When they are raised, the reactor becomes critical and sustains a nuclear reaction. When they are lowered completely, the reaction is stopped.

“Numerous Ohio State nuclear engineering graduate students have utilized the reactor for their thesis and dissertation projects over the years,” said Nuclear Reactor Laboratory Director Lei Raymond Cao. “Use of the research reactor is crucial for gaining hand-on experience in nuclear engineering, and this has been reflected in the number of graduates who have engaged in research utilizing the reactor and gone on to work at national laboratories where this experience is highly valued.”

NRL has been home to many sensor studies conducted by faculty members too, beginning with Dr. Don Miller in the 1980s and 1990s, and continuing currently with Dr. Tom Blue, Dr. Cao and Dr. Marat Khafizov. These studies have been funded by the Department of Energy with the goal to advance state-of-the-art of reactor instrumentation.

With varying capabilities like near-core large experiment irradiation, sensor evaluation, radiation-effects testing and flexible operations, NRL has become a facility for not only university researchers, but those in industry who utilize the capabilities of the reactor lab to make advances in the field of nuclear engineering.

“Some of the nation’s most distinguished nuclear industry and government leaders have been trained on this reactor,” Senior Associate Vice President for Research Randy Moses shared. “And research conducted at the NRL has had wide-ranging impact, from advancing new isotopes for radiation treatments to developing reliable satellite communication electronics that can withstand the harsh radiation in space.”

Officials are at the pool top looking down at the core. The system’s original control rod drive system is in the background. When the reactor is operating, a blue glow, called Cherenkov radiation, can be observed from this vantage point.
Officials are at the pool top looking down at the core. The system’s original control rod drive system is in the background. When the reactor is operating, a blue glow, called Cherenkov radiation, can be observed from this vantage point.

In recent years, the Nuclear Reactor Lab has continued to expand its capabilities. The NRL has added the ability to conduct neutron beam experiments, as well as high-temperature experiments. This has continued to heighten the reactors standing among industry researchers. NRL became a partner facility of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear User Facilities program in 2017, expanding the access to new researchers from across the country.

Outside researchers who have worked with the Ohio State reactor include academic institutions, national laboratories, private industry and a federal agency. Recently, the NRL has been the recipient of multiple Consolidated Innovative Nuclear Research awards and Small Business Innovation Research grants to support the outside research being conducted at the NRL.

Since becoming a national user facility, the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory has continued to expand. While the laboratory is continuing its operation to produce neutrons and radiation to support nuclear research and education, they have added an additional 5000 square-feet in lab space. This is keeping the NRL looking forward, as they plan to use the space to facilitate new avenues of research.

Cao said the reactor lab is working to obtain funding to increase capabilities including post irradiation examination.

“As we expand into the new annex the additional space will allow for more student interaction at the facility as well as increased utilization,” Cao added.

The 60th anniversary of the on-campus research reactor is a moment for the lab to celebrate its past. But like all researchers at Ohio State, those in the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory are focused on the future. For 60 years the Ohio State Research Reactor has maintained excellence in education, research and industrial service while meeting safety and regulatory obligations. And for the next 60 years and beyond, the NRL aims to not only continue to meet those needs, but exceed them.

by Sam Cejda, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Category: Nuclear