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.

Watching Over a National Research Tool

Alexander Adams
Research and Test Reactor Licensing

NRC inspectors can find themselves most anywhere in the United States, but one of the facilities we oversee is just down the street. The Center for Neutron Research, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is only about 20 minutes from our headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

nistneutronresearchfacilityThe Center is the largest research and test reactor we regulate, but large is a relative term – the Center’s reactor is 75 times smaller than the smallest U.S. commercial nuclear power plant. The reactor exists for only one purpose – to generate neutrons, pieces of atoms than can help researchers examine fantastically small details in many areas of science. The Center’s latest experiments have looked at materials that could improve oil and gas refining, and have examined biological cell wall behavior in real time.

As important a research tool as the Center is, it still has to operate safely. NRC inspectors check on the NIST facility at least twice annually to verify the reactor is operated safely and that only properly trained and licensed personnel run the reactor. Our ongoing reviews of the research reactor show that, even in the very unlikely case of the reactor’s systems failing during an accident, no effects are expected outside of the Center.

Security is another key factor in our oversight of the Center, and we inspect the facility’s security at least once every two years. NIST must follow our requirements to properly control access to the Center. Our security rules also keep fresh reactor fuel under strict control until it goes into the reactor, as well as keeping the reactor’s used fuel securely stored until it can be sent back to the Department of Energy.

Our security inspections at the Center show it has complied with the additional requirements the NRC imposed after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the Center has worked with other federal agencies to add security features that go beyond our requirements. The bottom line is that used fuel is highly radioactive, very difficult to handle safely by untrained people, and very strong measures are in place to protect the facility and the material.