Eliot Circular

Nuclear Scrounge

Fork in hand, Reed intercepts 3 kg of uranium that University of Arizona no longer wanted.

By Anna Mann
Reed reactor

Reed’s reactor glows with pride after scrounging almost 3 kg of uranium from the University of Arizona

For the first time in more than 40 years, the Reed reactor has received a fresh shipment of Uranium 235 to augment its dwindling supply. Fittingly, Reed managed to obtain the fuel through a time-honored technique—scrounging.

Some time ago, Reed reactor director Stephen Frantz learned that the University of Arizona was shutting down its reactor and planning to ship roughly three kilograms of fuel to a federal storage depository. Although the Arizona fuel rods were somewhat depleted, Frantz knew they were still sufficiently radioactive to allow Reed students to perform experiments for the next hundred years. In addition, the Arizona fuel was housed in containers made of stainless steel, which is more durable than the aluminum containers used for Reed’s supply.

After months of consultation (and forkwaving) with officials at Arizona and the Department of Energy, Frantz was able to broker a nuclear scrounge. Arizona would send its old fuel to Reed; in turn, Reed would send its old fuel to the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory.

This spring, Reed received 91 fuel rods, each containing 31 grams of uranium-zirconium hydride, for a total of 2.821 kilograms. “This is easily the most significant event in the history of the reactor since it first went critical in 1968,” Frantz told the Quest. “Reed needed more fuel, but new fuel is almost impossible to obtain. This will enable us to operate and fulfill our mission for many more decades.”

The new fuel will allow Reed to operate the reactor at a higher power, once it has obtained permission from government regulators. (The reactor is currently rated at 250 kilowatts; Reed will seek approval to double the power level.)

Reed is the only liberal arts college in the world with a nuclear reactor. Some 46 students are currently licensed to operate the reactor; about half are women. In fact, Reed licenses more female operators than all other colleges and universities combined.

Frantz showed off the new fuel during a tour in March. As the reactor powered up, the core began to glow with Cerenkov radiation, bathing the room in a ghostly gleam of turquoise. For a moment, the pens in Frantz’s shirt pocket looked strangely like the tines of a fork—or was it just our imagination?