The little reactor that could

On a morning in the early 1990s, a group of youthful Greenpeace demonstrators arrived at the front gate of the Reactor Institute Delft. They assumed that it was a dangerous nuclear facility and had planned to spend the day demanding its immediate closure.

“We took them in,” Dr. Menno Blaauw recalled. “We gave them a tour of the reactor, a brochure and a few Coca-Colas. Then they went home happily.” A graduate of TU Delft himself, Dr. Blaauw has been working at the reactor since 1988 and this is the only ‘protest’ he’s witnessed at the facility.

The reactor’s history begins in the 1950s when an exhibition promoting Atoms For Peace, a United Nations sponsored campaign to advocate the development of beneficial nuclear projects, ended its European tour in the Netherlands. The exhibit featured a small nuclear reactor that the Dutch government later agreed to repurpose for research projects.

Construction began on a permanent facility at TU Delft in November of 1958 and it opened in 1961. Since then, it has been used to conduct projects launched not only by researchers from TU Delft but other universities and even a few corporations as well. Current projects at the reactor primarily focus on advancements in the fields of medicine and sustainable energy.

In order to accommodate newer types of research, the facility has been upgraded and expanded several times since its first projects were conducted in the ’60s. Infrastructural improvements and a cooling tower helped boost the reactor’s power levels from 100 kilowatts to two megawatts. In the early ’90s, a ‘beam guide hall’ was added that houses large equipment. A current development programme dubbed OYSTER will bring more precise and versatile instruments to the reactor. A cold neutron source will be added that’s currently scheduled for completion in 2018.

The facility also currently utilises only a moderate amount of uranium-235. It’s contained within a series of about 20 fuel elements located within the reactor itself. Each contains 300 grams of U-235 that creates an eerie blue glow as opposed to the bright green colour typically seen in nuclear facilities featured on TV shows like The Simpsons.

The reactor doesn’t pose much of a health risk to its employees or the public. In the extremely unlikely case of a major incident, only the 300 metres surrounding the facility would need to be evacuated.

Nevertheless, Dr. Blaauw and his colleagues strictly adhere to a series of safety procedures to prevent even the slightest possibility of something, or someone, becoming contaminated. The reactor itself is housed behind two thick airlock doors and visitors wear protective covers over their shoes to offset the possibility of radioactive dust following them back out.

Afterwards, they’re also required to step onto a device that resembles a doctor’s office scale that scans them for radioactivity. Lab jackets worn by researchers and the facility’s permanent staff are washed in on-site laundry machines as well. The water used to clean them is even later scanned for radioactivity. As for which cycle is used, that depends on the ‘contamination’ involved.

“Is it ‘radioactive’ tomato ketchup or is it a ‘radioactive’ coffee stain?” Dr. Blaauw joked. “That’s what really determines the washing procedure.”

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