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Reedies explain threat from Japan's radiation release

By Kevin Myers on March 24, 2011 09:51 AM

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The alarming news coming out of Japan about potential nuclear reactor meltdowns has sparked considerable interest in Reed's research reactor. The March 17 Oregonian did a nice job of assessing the minimal risk associated with Oregon's two research reactors (Reed and OSU) in its story, "State research reactors can't melt down."

The reactor is used for experiments such as measuring the amount of specific elements in samples. A recent experiment searched shards from an ancient ceramic pot to find impurities in the clay that could help pinpoint the location where the pot was made. Using the reactor allowed researchers to identify the elements while leaving the artifact intact.

Reactor Facility Director Stephen Frantz has been a high-demand interviewee with Pacific Northwest media outlets (OPB, KGW-TV , KING-5 Seattle) to help assess the danger posed to the region by the radiation release in Japan.

The Reed reactor is roughly the size of a washing machine and runs on low enriched uranium. Because it is a research reactor and not a power-generating reactor, it does not generate enough heat to boil water, and is only utilized when conducting tests or experiments. Even if there were a massive earthquake while the reactor was operating and all the cooling water leaked out, the air around the fuel would adequately cool the reactor. As the Oregonian headline indicated, the reactor cannot produce enough heat to cause a meltdown.

Some Reed reactor operators have been educating readers of various websites and on social media where misinformation travels quickly. Senior Reactor Operator Ellen McManis '12 was frustrated by the lack of context in which levels of radiation were being bandied around. She asked her cartoonist friend Randall Munroe to create a visual representation that could help provide a frame of reference. Munroe graphed the exposure levels of such things as eating bananas or flying cross-country. Their efforts were chronicled in a story by Boston's NPR station WBUR.

Currently 46 Reed undergraduate are licensed as reactor operators with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Students take the licensing exam after a full academic year of training. NRC examiners administer the three-hour written exam and four-hour walkthrough-operational-oral exam.