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Penn State University’s Breazeale Reactor Celebrates 60 Years

Thomas Wellock

pennstateLast month, Pennsylvania State University’s Breazeale Research Reactor celebrated its 60th anniversary as the nation’s oldest licensed reactor. The Breazeale reactor has been invaluable in research, training, and in establishing Penn State’s well-regarded nuclear engineering program. As part of the Atoms for Peace program, it trained foreign engineers as reactor operators and tested fuel integrity for reactors exported to other nations.

It is a historic marker of early reactor development.

In the early 1950s, universities raced to build research reactors. North Carolina State College jumped ahead when it contracted with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to build a reactor that started up in 1953. By 1955, 14 schools had applied to the AEC for the license required of new reactors under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

Penn State had two important assets in this race: money and William Breazeale. Penn State’s board of trustees committed ample funds for construction and operation. To win AEC approval, Penn State followed NC State’s successful strategy of raiding the AEC for faculty talent and a reactor design.

An electrical engineer by training, Breazeale had worked for several years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory supporting the design of thorium and uranium-fueled reactors. His signal accomplishment was in leading the design team for the Bulk Shielding Reactor, the prototype of the “swimming pool” research reactors built at Penn State and facilities around the world. Penn State hired Breazeale to serve as its first-ever professor of nuclear engineering.

The swimming pool reactor was safe, inexpensive, and startlingly simple. Engineers just placed the reactor fuel at the bottom of a tank 30 feet deep so that the water served as a source of cooling and radiation shielding. Faculty and students could stand on a platform directly over the reactor to operate and view it.

Nevertheless, the AEC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) made the path to licensing approval so challenging that a frustrated Breazeale once suggested the Committee did not “view the [reactor] hazard problem in its proper perspective.” It wasn’t the last time that ACRS safety concerns were challenged by applicants and vendors.

Earlier this month, NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) visited Penn State and toured the reactor. He's standing here with Kenan Unlu, Ph.D., Professor of Nuclear Engineering.

Earlier this month, NRC Chairman Stephen Burns (right) visited Penn State and toured the reactor. He’s standing here with Kenan Unlu, Ph.D., Professor of Nuclear Engineering.

The ACRS fretted over the potential for theft of the fuel, power excursions, and the proximity of the reactor to college housing. The reactor’s 3.6 kilograms of highly enriched fuel posed a safeguards risk, and the Committee demanded a combination of security guards and radiation monitors to protect it. Penn State had to carry out fuel test program and moved the reactor further away than planned from faculty housing. The ACRS also required an emergency plan for notifying local authorities, public evacuation, and cleanup.  Ironing out these issues delayed licensing. When President Dwight Eisenhower gave the college’s commencement address in June 1955, he could only look down into an empty tank with no fuel.

But persistence led to success. On the morning of August 15, Breazeale and doctoral student Robert Cochran started the reactor for the first time. Both veteran Oak-Ridge operators, their approach to criticality was careful but confident enough that they paused so that Cochran could run to the registrar’s office. At 11:30 a.m., the reactor went critical. Then Breazeale and Cochran shut down the reactor and stored the fuel in a vault for two weeks. It was, after all, summer vacation.

The Breazeale reactor reminds us how much reactor safety has changed while staying the same. Its 1955 license was just two pages of conditions. When Penn State renewed it in 2009, the license had grown to 60 pages. Safety regulation is more complex today, but the inherent safety of Breazeale’s reactor remains as important today as it was in 1955.

Something Old, Something New – The Information Digest

Allison Balik
Media Assistant

Today’s Information Digest is filled with infographics and photos, depicting the work of the NRC and its licensees. Anyone who wants to know anything about nuclear security, materials, waste and reactors can open up the Information Digest – in print or online – and find the answer. But, the book hasn’t always been this way. Over time, the Information Digest has evolved to fit the changing needs of the public, the media, the industry and the NRC.infodigetstcover

Our journey begins in January 1982 when the Office of the Controller issued the first quarterly Summary Information. Most people knew it as the Brown Book, aptly named for the document’s cover. Unlike the current Information Digest, the Brown Book had white pages covered in black text with no photos or diagrams.

The purpose of the Brown Book was to have a consistent source of industry data for budget justification. NRC staff needed a reliable source of information to which they could quickly refer when needed. There were no descriptions of processes or technology in the Brown Book. It was simply an aggregation of graphs, charts and data.

Despite the differences, there are quite a few similarities between the old and new versions. Like the current Information Digest, the Brown Book had a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Organization Chart, a map of the Agreement States and charts of operating reactors.

The Brown Book evolved into the Information Digest in the late ‘80s. It was still the same size, but blue instead of brown.  This new version was divided into two parts: an overview of the NRC and industry data. NRC staff began carrying copies of the book when briefing Congress and the public or when recruiting employees. Smaller, “pocket editions” of the Information Digest were also produced.

Karen Olive, (now retired), remembers working on the Digest during her time in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. There was a much less formal process of collecting information. She would call around the agency, asking employees if they had any information that needed to be included. Soon, people were contacting her with their own suggestions.

The Information Digest continued expanding its audience during the ‘90s. Instead of being solely focused on data, the Digest became an educational tool for the public. The graphs and charts were now accompanied by text. A glossary was also added to explain terms used in the nuclear industry. Although the book shrank from 11 x 8½in. to 5 x 3in., it grew thicker as more information was added.

After spending several years in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the Information Digest ended up in the hands of the Office of Public Affairs. There, Beth Hayden, former Deputy Director of the Office of Public Affairs (now retired), helped craft the document into a more user-friendly publication that was easier to read for a wider audience. To make the document even more accessible, Public Affairs started posting printable versions online. All of the maps, infographics, photographs, and data sets became available on the NRC Website.

The 27th edition of the Information Digest, which came out today, is much like its predecessors – with changes too.  Visual changes include an indigo cover with icons and a new layout. The online Digest is also more user-friendly. Maps are now more visible when printing in black and white, and you can also upload the PDF version to your smartphone.

The Info Digest will continue to evolve as publishing practices and audience preferences change. But no matter what, the publication will remain a quality source of information about the NRC.

September 11th — National Day of Service and Remembrance

Back to School – The Student Corner

TheStudentCorner_screengrabAllison Balik
Summer Media Assistant

While students have been out on summer break, the NRC has been hard at work updating its Student Corner website – launching today. The Student Corner includes educator resources, basic information about the NRC and nuclear subjects and fun activities. Although the site was intended for students and educators, its resources are useful for anyone interested in the NRC and nuclear basics.

Opening the Student Corner reveals a vibrant dashboard filled with buttons and banners. Users can click on these icons to easily navigate between different sections. Some sections feature accordion-style menus, which makes it easier to get information without having to open up several new pages. Complete, printable versions of these pages can be downloaded as PDFs.

Teachers can use the full lesson plans available on the For Educators page. Each lesson plan has objectives, questions and classroom activities designed to engage students who can, for example, find the footprints of radiation in a cloud chamber. Educators can also create their own lesson plans using the additional resources provided.

The Student Corner also has resources for those who want to learn more about the agency and nuclear related concepts. Sections contain photos of nuclear power plants, diagrams of reactors or other graphics to make information easier to visualize. Information about the NRC’s role in the nuclear industry and the history of nuclear power are available on the NRC Facts page.

For more in-depth information, students can check out the Science 101 Series written by NRC experts. Science 101 covers topics such as Geiger counters, nuclear chain reactions, how a nuclear power plant works and more. Students can test their knowledge with the “What do You Know?” quiz.

The Careers page introduces career paths in the nuclear industry and at the NRC. Available links to video interviews with NRC employees, such as health physicists and thermal engineers, give students a look at potential jobs. Middle and high school students can use the A Journey to Your Future: Make Discovering Your Career an Adventure guide to learn about different career tracks. High school and college students interested in working for the NRC can also visit the page to learn more about NRC internships.

Additional links to photos, videos, schematics and other diagrams are located on the Multimedia page. The Resource page also contains an extensive list of links to educational websites of other organizations and federal agencies.

We launched the Student Corner just in time for the start of the school year. We’ll be adding additional activities and resources later in the school year.


Intense Exercises Help Keep Nuclear Plants Secure

Melissa Ralph
Technical Advisor
Division of Security Operations

Demonstrating an intense focus, stealth, and military-style tactics, a team moves in concert to destroy a specific target. The team plans and executes each action with deliberate purpose. Who are they? What are they after? This could easily be mistaken for any civilian war-game.

But this is no game. This is an important part of the inspection program for one of the nation’s most critical assets — commercial nuclear power plants.

forceonforceBWThese mock attacks, called force-on-force exercises, are one time when the so-called “bad guys” are part of the plan. Known as the national “Composite Adversary Force,” or CAF, they are usually security professionals from other nuclear plants across the country. CAF members complete a rigorous selection process and training to prepare them for this two-year assignment.

At each site, the CAF attempts to gain access to and destroy its target — equipment that if compromised could impact the safety of the plant and the surrounding community. The “attackers” normally use various routes, methods of entry and tactics to challenge the ability of the plant’s security force to protect the facility. Security forces must be able to defend the site against a standard set of characteristics called the “design basis threat,” or DBT. Specific details of the DBT are not disclosed, for obvious reasons, but the DBT’s scope is laid out in the NRC’s regulations.

The simulated attacks occur over two days and nights, but the full inspection lasts two weeks.  During the first week, NRC inspectors have unrestricted access to the site. The inspectors take multiple tours and review the site’s protective strategy and security plan. The inspection team works with the CAF to develop mission plans for a second trip to the site, called the exercise week.

During the exercise week, the CAF performs two mock assaults on the site. The full inspection concludes with a management critique after the last exercise. Senior management at the site participate in these critiques to use lessons from the exercises to help improve the overall security program. Any vulnerabilities identified are addressed before the NRC inspectors leave.

The NRC has been conducting force-on-force exercises since 1991, but they were significantly modified after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The NRC conducts a force-on-force inspection at each nuclear power plant every three years. The NRC inspection teams are drawn from a diverse group. A core team of NRC headquarters staff is augmented by NRC regional and resident inspectors and active duty military members from the U.S. Special Operations Command.

You may not have heard much about the specific details or results of the force-on-force program due to its security-sensitive nature. Simply put, the NRC doesn’t want the real bad guys to obtain information about the security strategies and plans at the plants.

The force-on-force inspection is part of the baseline inspection process, which the NRC uses to provide an overall assessment of safety and security for each plant. While the specific details of security inspection findings or violations are not made public, overall site performance under the reactor oversight process is made available through the NRC’s website.

The NRC will continue to explore ways to enhance the force-on-force program and will announce future meetings on possible enhancements as they occur. More information on force-on-force inspections is available in the NRC’s backgrounder. General information on nuclear power plant security requirements is also on the NRC’s website.


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