A radioactive attraction

DAN DOUCET, Evergreen opinion editor

Entering into the Dodgen Research Facility, all guests are required to clip on a dosimeter, a small device worn with the intent of measuring exposure to radiation.

That’s because just up the stairs from the lobby, through a number of secured doors, at the bottom of a 25-foot-deep pool, and surrounded by 65,000 gallons of water, is WSU’s very own nuclear reactor.

Despite wearing the sensitive dosimeters, guests should not expect to see the device read above 0.0 millirems, the measure of radiation’s effect on the human body, during their visit. Even operators at the Nuclear Radiation Center never receive more than a tenth of the legal limit, said Senior Reactor Operator Kaitlyn Restis.

The reactor fuel at the bottom of the pool gives off an ominous dark-blue glow due to Cherenkov radiation, an interaction between electrons and the surrounding water.

“Radiation isn’t something that needs to be feared. We are exposed to it every day, whether on an airplane, sitting on a granite bench or eating a banana.”

Kaitlyn Restis, senior reactor operator

The facility sees up to 1,000 visitors per year, and touring groups have ranged from middle school classes to Boy Scouts and even a retirement community.

Restis said anyone can schedule tours by going to the Nuclear Research Center website, clicking on the tours link and following the instructions.

“Part of our mission is to teach and reach out to the public and let them know it’s safe,” Restis said. “Radiation isn’t something that needs to be feared. We are exposed to it every day, whether on an airplane, sitting on a granite bench or eating a banana. We are always being exposed, and that’s why we do what we do, to explain that to people.”

An average day at the reactor building begins by making sure all safety channels and systems are functioning properly, Restis said. The team then loads the core by lowering the day’s experiments down to the reactor, followed by reactor start up. Whenever the reactor is powered up, a licensed operator must be behind the console. From there they can control the reactor’s power level.

“Our main goal is to safely operate and maintain the reactor,” Restis said. “The fuel itself is engineered to be inherently safe.”

She explained that the WSU reactor is a completely different design from the one at Chernobyl, which overheated, causing a pressure buildup and explosion.

“The reactor here would never have a meltdown,” she said. “Even if the reactor overheated and the pool drained, the reactor would just sit there.”

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The research performed at the center has many practical applications. The team works with the chemistry department to produce samples and with the geology department to irradiate and read the composition of soil samples, Restis said.

But the center is also working on another project. Boron neutron capture therapy is designed with the intent of treating cancer patients. The process consists of injecting a patient with boron, then exposing the sample to a beam of neutrons, which Restis said will activate the boron and kill the cancer.

The federally-owned facility was built in 1959, and the reactor was first powered up on March 7, 1961. Built here for its proximity to the Hanford Site, the reactor was designed to help with nuclear research, but never for the sole purpose of generating power.

The initial power cap for the reactor in 1961 was 100 kilowatts. But in 1967, when the reactor was converted to a TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) reactor, the maximum power output was upped to one megawatt. The WSU Nuclear Research Center is fairly small in comparison with the average power reactor, which generates several thousand megawatts.

Restis said the center is always trying to recruit new people, and students of any discipline are allowed to join the program.

“A huge part of our job is to train the next generation of operators,” she said, “which is no easy task.”

There are currently seven students and five full-time reactor operators working at the facility. Restis, a WSU graduate, said only six of her 16 fellow students made it through the program.

“When you tell people you’re a licensed reactor operator the room falls silent for a moment.”

Kaitlyn Restis, senior reactor operator

“It’s a very rigorous program,” she said, “but it was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Hillary Bennett, a physics major and full-time reactor operator, joined the program two years ago after seeing a presentation about it in class. Within a year she had been licensed as an operator, since the program is generally kept to two semesters, Bennet said.

Tyler LaVoie got hooked on the idea of being an operator after meeting some of the operators in class.

“It was definitely one of the harder things I’d done but it was very satisfying to get licensed and that led to a job right after I graduated,” LaVoie said. “A lot of people think it’s just for math or science majors, but it’s for people of any interest. We teach everything from the ground up.”

Since the reactor is overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all applications to become a licensed operator must be submitted to them. An examiner from Washington, D.C., is then flown to the facility to look over the written test. The examiner walks the applicant through the facility, testing them on their knowledge of the equipment.

“Basically everything here we have to know inside and out,” Restis said. “It’s very extensive.”

Training to become a reactor operator is completely free, and certification comes with a wide range of benefits.

“When you tell people you’re a licensed reactor operator the room falls silent for a moment,” Restis said. “Students that have gone through this program get hired all the time because this is on their resume.”