A student with blond dreadlocks was playing an acoustic guitar outside of the Scott Chemistry building as I walked in looking for the Reed Research Reactor. He didn't seem at all out of place. I had passed a couple of students playing fetch with a dog and a young man in a kilt on my way to the large brick building in the middle of campus. In fact, the only thing that did seem out of place was the fact that there was a nuclear reactor in the middle of this Portland, Ore., liberal arts college.
After two weeks of visiting reactors at large universities in the Northwest, Reed seemed an unlikely place for a nuclear research facility. All of the other schools I visited were public universities with 13,000 to 30,000 students. Reed is a private, undergraduate institution with 1,300 students.
Most research reactors at U.S. universities were built with the help of federal funds during the 1950s and 1960s as part of President Eisenhower's push to harness the peaceful power of the atom. Reed, however, procured its own reactor. According to the school's Web site, chemistry professor Arthur F. Scott privately raised the $300,000 needed to build the reactor in 1968. The school has never had a nuclear engineering program.
Three of the other schools my colleagues and I visited, Washington State, University of Arizona and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, offer no nuclear engineering courses. Some other universities with reactors have gotten rid of their nuclear engineering majors, but still offer courses within their engineering departments.
When I was in the control room of Washington State's reactor, a supervisor told me his facility, which uses highly enriched uranium, was not affiliated with any academic department on campus. "That kind of freedom," he told me, "is pretty unusual in the academic world."
The reactor at Washington State spends most of its operating hours irradiating samples for commercial customers, not students or researchers, said Dr. Gerald Tripard, director of the Nuclear Radiation Center. These endeavors are referred to as "service applications" at the reactors, as universities are not supposed to be commercial operations. Tripard said that, while the commercial projects may take more time, the reactor is used for a greater number of research projects.
Costs for service application irradiations are calculated by the hour and available on many of the reactors' Web sites. For example, according to Washington State's reactor Web site, a client unaffiliated with the university can pay $108 per hour, plus labor, for "reactor irradiations."
During my visit to Washington State, a senior operator told me the reactor actually benefited from other academic reactors closing down -- its client list expanded.
While Washington State University would not release a client list, I was told on my tour that the facility previously conducted quality control tests for Kodak and irradiated mineral samples for mining companies. Tripard also said that, for one private client, the Washington State reactor produces radioisotopes that are used in petroleum exploration.
"Service applications" at these universities range from producing radioisotopes for cancer diagnosis to irradiating gemstones to change their colors and increase their value. Topaz can be irradiated to turn it a deep blue color. While most irradiated blue topaz comes from Asia, a few reactors in the U.S., including the University of Missouri at Columbia and the University of Wisconsin have processed the semi-precious stones.
The University of Missouri covers almost 70 percent of its $12.7 million annual operating budget through service applications. According to budget statistics provided by the university, some of that money comes from producing medical isotopes, chips for hybrid cars and irradiating topaz.
Money earned by these facilities goes toward covering their operating costs and keeping the doors open at reactors, which some schools may view as status symbols.
"I think it's a prestige subject," said Fritz Steinhausler, a professor of physics and biophysics at the University of Salzburg in Austria who has co-authored several papers on the vulnerability of nuclear reactors to terrorist sabotage.
"No scientist really wants to part with one of his wonderful toys," Steinhausler said. "And a research reactor is, in fact, a wonderful toy as such."