A group of national experts on an initiative to use fuel that is less highly enriched in nuclear research and test reactors is scheduled to meet today and Wednesday at Oregon State University, to assess progress toward this goal.
Members of this High Performance Research Reactor Working Group are part of a program that began more than 30 years ago, and have recently accelerated its efforts in the interest of enhanced nuclear security.
There are only five civilian research and test reactors in the United States that now use highly enriched uranium for their operation, out of the original 47 in 1978. Research and test reactors in the United States never have used material that could be used in the production of large-scale nuclear weapons, but there has always been concern about the potential for these radioactive materials to be used in “dirty bombs.”
“This is the last stretch in this program,” said Wade Marcum, an OSU assistant professor of nuclear engineering. “Ultimately we plan to convert all civilian research and test reactors to using low-enriched fuels, but the remaining reactors using high-enriched fuels require very specific fuel designs in order to conduct their ongoing research.”
It’s a difficult engineering task, experts say, to design a new type of low-enriched uranium fuel that still allows each reactor to maintain its current research capabilities.
OSU converted its research reactor to low-enriched fuel several years ago, and is playing a key role in these efforts. It has a multi-million dollar contract from the Idaho National Laboratory to help test and study new types of fuels that have a lower level of enrichment but still offer the performance needed.