UF's Reactor Returns

This original article was published in April of 2015. See the original article here: http://www.gainesville.com/news/20150413/ufs-nuclear-reactor-back-ready-to-assist-students


The small nuclear reactor on the University of Florida campus has been sleeping for about four years while the Nuclear Science Center was renovated.

Just over two weeks ago, it woke up — with upgrades.

And it’s still safe, UF officials said last week.

“The laws of physics actively prevent anything from going wrong,” Nuclear Training Reactor Director Kelly Jordan said.

UF’s reactor can’t make electricity like a normal nuclear power reactor because it runs with 10,000 times less power than a typical power-generating reactor, Jordan said. It also does not have the related machinery necessary to generate electricity.

The UF reactor — on the ground floor of the Nuclear Science center near Weimer Hall and the Reitz Union — is one of 31 reactors in the United States used for student training and research.

“There’s been a slight renaissance of nuclear power needs because of climate change,” said University of California Irvine Nuclear Training Reactor Supervisor George Miller. “So, there are somewhat more students going back into nuclear engineering and nuclear science programs than there were maybe 20 years ago.”

For these students, Miller said, training reactors are a way to apply what they learn in class to real life.

Previously, engineers at UF controlled the UF reactor without any digital instruments. The safety rules, enforced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are strict.

“We have fairly detailed and extensive procedures where you literally do high-level diagnostics in every component of the entire system,” Jordan said.

Now, UF students and researchers will be able to monitor, start and shut down parts of the UF training reactor with the latest gadgets. There are built-in kill switches that stop the reactor if things like radiation levels reach a limit, the temperature gets too hot, or power goes out.

The UF training reactor doesn’t run all the time. When it’s not in use, metal plates called control blades absorb any extra neutrons.

When a researcher wants to test a nuclear experiment, a computer can remove the control blades from the reactor’s heart — the core. The researchers then insert fuel full of neutron-heavy elements into the core that will start a nuclear chain reaction.

Starting this reaction is like making the first shot in a game of pool. A player hits a white pool ball, knocking it into other balls. These other balls keep hitting more balls.

On the pool table, the force of friction slows the balls down until they stop moving. The control blades work similarly to friction, stopping a chain reaction when researchers are done or if things appear to get out of hand.

Along with 500 or so pages of safety analyses, Jordan co-authored a paper in a January 2015 issue of the Nuclear Engineering and Design journal.

He looked at the worst-case scenario: The UF reactor, running for 30 days straight, is hit by a falling concrete block weighing 4,500 pounds. Jordan proved, with a couple of assumptions, that somebody could stay inside the reactor cell for an hour before his exposure to radiation was more than the max allowed.

To the outside world, radiation released from such an incident would mean exposure much less than the yearly safety maximum.

“This reactor’s as safe as they come,” Jordan said.

The reactor makes barely any waste because it runs at 100 kilowatts — about the power of 100 everyday microwaves.

“We have our fuel,” Jordan said, “and that’s our fuel; we never use it up.”

Any spent fuel would be sent to the U.S. Department of Energy in Idaho, he said.

Jordan and his collaborators are now crossing things off a checklist to make sure all the systems are working.

Renovations to the Nuclear Science Center continue, but Jordan plans to start using the reactor for nuclear radiation research within the next two months.

“It should be in much better and safer and newer condition,” Miller said. “We only wish ours could get refurbished.”

Ralph Butler Profile, MU Research Reactor

This text is taken from an April 2016 article in the Columbia Business Times. The link to the original article is here: http://columbiabusinesstimes.com/2016/04/25/ralph-butler-mu-research-reactor-2/



  1. What happens at MURR? MURR provides research and development, products, and services that directly benefit citizens worldwide. We engineer customized solutions for leading researchers as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies; conduct a wide range of sensitive analyses; and enable discoveries. In the nuclear medicine arena, MURR is at the heart of a network of internationally recognized scientists, engineers, and technicians who are fighting the war against cancer using radioisotopes supplied by MURR.
  2. What makes you a unique reactor? Our reactor’s compact and elegant design is renewable and adaptable. Its unique design allows us to safely operate the reactor for more hours in a given year than any other research reactor in the world. This operating capacity is a key factor to ensuring the nation’s supply of medical isotopes. With a staff of 200, the MURR Center leads the nation as the highest power research reactor at a university, with multidisciplinary research, education, and service programs that span hundreds of projects in Missouri, the U.S., and the world.
  3. Why are radioisotopes so important? Radioisotopes impact our everyday lives in so many ways. They are integral components in smoke detectors, help analyze archaeological artifacts to better understand our history, and are indispensable tools for diagnosing diseases and treating cancer.
  4. Are there any radioisotope projects you’re currently developing? We are working to bring several different radioisotopes to the medical community for which there is no current U.S. supply. The first radioisotope we are developing is Iodine 131, which is used for diagnosis and treatment of thyroid cancer and other thyroid conditions in more than 800,000 U.S. patient procedures per year. We are currently commissioning the supply line to be in routine production later this year. Another one of our radioisotopes in development is Lutetium 177. Our Lu-177 is the active ingredient in a new drug called Lutathera, which is used to treat neuroendocrine tumors, including pancreatic cancer. Lutathera has received FDA Fast Track designation and is expected to receive FDA approval in early 2017.
  5. You’re requesting $10 million in funding from the state. Why? The requested funding will be used to construct a specialized training and education facility, which would allow us to directly address a primary need cited by nuclear medicine companies that have explored relocation to central Missouri: the limited supply of a specialized technical workforce to support nuclear medicine development and supply. These funds would also allow us to house much needed research space.
  6. How would an increased trained technical workforce impact MURR and the community? A training facility located at MURR is a strategic link in Missouri’s ability to attract companies to central Missouri to form a nuclear medicine innovation district. Such a district would make Columbia a focal point in the nuclear medicine industry, ultimately leading to more high-tech jobs in central Missouri.
  7. What are MURR’s future goals? Our future goals include building on MURR’s momentum in nuclear medicine R&D, fueled by the supply of isotopes for medical diagnosis and treatment — a powerful opportunity for MU. Beyond the $10 million expansion at MURR, the vision for a nuclear medicine innovation district includes a new isotope processing facility, a 70 MeV cyclotron for proton-rich radioisotopes, and ultimately, a larger research reactor — all at or near Discovery Ridge Research Park.
  8. How would these goals impact the business community? Construction of these new facilities would create new, permanent, high-paying jobs and potentially attract nuclear medicine companies to Columbia, all of which translates into more consumers and further support for our local economy.
  9. Why is Discovery Ridge important to MURR? Due to the short half-lives of medically relevant radioisotopes, locating commercial entities close to MURR and major distribution points (e.g. Columbia Regional Airport, St Louis and Kansas City airports, and I-70) lowers transaction costs, creates efficiencies in marketing and service, and increases supply.
  10. What are the biggest challenges MURR is facing right now? The largest challenge we are facing today is a lack of space and qualified individuals. Every square foot of MURR is occupied. We are unable to support all of the requests we receive for R&D support that we are otherwise well-suited to provide.
  11. What do you wish the public knew about MURR? Today, many thousands of patients benefit every year from nuclear medicine research and the supply of active ingredients (radioisotopes) that originate at MURR. Our vision to expand the facilities at MURR and Discovery Ridge with a nuclear medicine innovation district would lead to even more life-saving treatments.