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Expanded role for UW–Madison reactor adds value to industry

August 30, 2019 By Renee Meiller

With the growth of companies such as Phoenix and Shine Medical Technologies, Wisconsin is becoming a center for technology development in neutron sources and medical isotope production, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison is poised to play an important role in fostering these advances.

The university is building on a nearly 60-year tradition of leadership in nuclear engineering with an expanded role for its research-and-teaching nuclear reactor that extends the facility’s expertise into industry.

“We see it as continuing to play an important part in the education of our students and in research,” says Ian Robertson, dean of the College of Engineering at UW–Madison. “In the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, industrial sponsorship and usage also are important, because we can leverage the reactor to provide a service to a broader community.”

Working toward becoming the world’s leading medical isotope producer, Shine is building its first manufacturing facility just south of Madison in Janesville, Wisconsin. When it’s complete, the plant could produce one-third of the world’s demand for medical isotopes, but will primarily serve the U.S. market.

Shine founder and CEO Greg Piefer says the UW–Madison nuclear reactor can fill a need even before his facility is ready.

“The reactor can provide a radiation environment similar to that found in our plant, and so we can test some components in that radiation field prior to startup,” says Piefer, who earned undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and physics and master’s and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering and engineering physics from UW–Madison. “If we find any issues, we will have a head start on resolving them. Typically, you wouldn’t be able to do that type of testing before the plant starts up.”

He says a future collaboration with the reactor might be in producing certain medical isotopes through a process called neutron capture.

“These isotopes have an emerging role in treating, and perhaps even curing, cancers in some patients,” Piefer says. “This is an extremely exciting field that may substantially change the way we approach the treatment of various cancers. We’re excited to evaluate with the UW nuclear reactor if there is a feasible path to work together and get these life-saving products to market more quickly.”

Founded in 2005, Phoenix (formerly Phoenix Nuclear Labs) has become an internationally recognized manufacturer of neutron generators, and its state-of-the-art imaging center, currently under construction in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, will be the first facility of its kind to offer commercial neutron imaging services. CEO Ross Radel, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and his doctorate in nuclear engineering from UW–Madison, says the company can draw upon the reactor’s capabilities to help test and validate components of Phoenix products.

“There are only a couple of dozen places in the country that have neutron fluxes the reactor can produce,” he says.

An additional benefit, notes Radel, is that the reactor is closely tied to one of the best nuclear engineering programs in the country.

“The professors and staff are really great to work with, not just for providing services, but also because they offer intellectual horsepower,” he says. “If Phoenix comes to them with a technical challenge we are trying to solve, there are people to help us do that. There are only a handful of places in this country you can go to find that sort of expertise.”

Since the UW–Madison reactor began operating in 1961, students in the university’s highly ranked undergraduate and graduate nuclear engineering programs have used the facility to learn about nuclear power, reactor operations and nuclear medicine. Over the years, the reactor also has served researchers studying reactors and provided a source of radiation for scientists in areas ranging from archeology to medical isotopes.

A 1-megawatt TRIGA (an acronym for training, research, isotopes — and its manufacturer, General Atomics) reactor, the UW–Madison nuclear reactor is one of 24 such facilities located on the campuses of major research universities — four of which are Big Ten schools — throughout the United States. Each of these reactors is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and undergoes a rigorous annual inspection. UW–Madison’s reactor was inspected in 2019. Its license extends through 2031.

In early September, contractors will perform anticipated maintenance to apply an epoxy sealant to seams in the reactor’s aluminum liner. Surrounded by concrete several feet thick, the aluminum liner forms the “pool” that holds approximately 18,500 gallons of water. The pool cools the fuel while the reactor is operating.

This type of maintenance is common and has been performed in TRIGA reactors around the country. In a related project, contractors also will analyze the UW–Madison reactor’s liner to inform the maintenance schedule and locations for future sealing. The project will take approximately a week.

Research in the reactor could position it to play an integral role in advancing nuclear technology at a national level. The Department of Energy has launched a program geared toward building an advanced test reactor in Idaho. Known as the Versatile Fast Neutron Source, or the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), it will provide leading-edge capability for accelerated testing of advanced nuclear fuels, materials, instrumentation and sensors.

“For researchers, it will be competitive to get time on the VTR and they will need experiments and methodologies that have been demonstrated on another reactor,” says Paul Wilson, professor and chair of UW–Madison’s Department of Engineering Physics, home to the university’s nuclear engineering program. “That’s a role for these university research reactors, as a proving ground for experiments that will be run on a very intense environment like the VTR.”

The UW–Madison reactor’s research focus and increased interaction with industry will benefit students, as well.

“With more activity going on in the reactor, there’s more opportunity for students to get involved with that work and to learn more about industrial applications of such facilities,” Wilson says.