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Loss of reactor hurts 'U' nuclear program

BY ALISON GO
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 17, 2004

In the year since the University completed shutting down the
Ford Nuclear Reactor on North Campus due to financial concerns, the
University has been unable to meet the needs of students affected
by the loss.

While students in programs ranging from geological sciences to
engineering used the reactor, one of the programs most affected by
its decommissioning is the Nuclear Engineering and Radio Sciences
department.

“This is a real loss to the department,” said NERS
Prof. John Lee, chair of the department. “This was one of the
three flagship nuclear reactors around the country.”

The NERS undergraduate and graduate programs were once the
top-ranked programs in the country, according to U.S. News and
World Report rankings. Now, the programs are ranked fifth and tied
for third, respectively, said Anthony Francis, the
University’s associate vice president for research.

“I am very sad and worried that it will take a
considerable effort and time to make up for our lost ranking and to
improve the program to the quality that students expect,” Lee
said.

However, other University officials say that a nuclear reactor
is not necessary for a top-ranked school in nuclear engineering.
The University of California-Berkeley, the third-ranked school for
undergraduate nuclear engineering this year, has never had a
nuclear reactor.

“What would be an interesting test is the effect (the
decommissioning) has in the upcoming years,” Francis
said.

Students who are now in NERS said the University has done little
to alleviate the inconvenience caused by the loss of the reactor.
 Nuclear engineering students who would have used the reactor
on campus now use the Dow Chemical Co. reactor in Midland. The
commute takes about two hours and in some cases requires van
rentals for transportation.

Students who had ongoing research projects that required the use
of the reactor are now able to receive money through the vice
president for research’s discretionary funds, but Francis
said he has not received any requests for funding.

Aside from the effects on students already in NERS, the
University has also seen a decrease in the numbers of students in
their NERS program.

“Undergrad students are now going to schools that do have
a reactor,” Sorensen said.

Recruiting efforts have also been affected by the
decommissioning.

“In respect to education and recruiting, it was a big
loss,” said Dave Jordan, Engineering graduate student and
outreach chair of the University’s chapter of the American
Nuclear Society. “Nuclear engineering is sometimes difficult
to demonstrate and this was very tangible.”

The decommissioning of the reactor has also narrowed the options
for laboratory requirements that seniors are required to fill,
which were previously held primarily at the reactor site. NERS has
adjusted their courses to compensate for the change.

While the University Board of Regents decided to decommission
the nuclear reactor in 2000, the final stages of shutting down the
reactor were completed last summer.

Because the reactor was principally used by parties outside the
University, its $1.2 million annual expenditure made it difficult
for the University to justify keeping it running, Francis said.

At the time of the decision, the reactor was in need of
substantial repair — such as the replacement of building and
electrical systems — a third of which was urgent or high
priority. Similarly, increased security since the Sept. 11 attacks
has raised the costs of operating the reactor, Francis said.

The reactor was one of the relatively few remaining units run by
a university. Because they can be operated with the necessary, the
trend has been moving toward government-run reactors, Francis said.
“The University of Michigan certainly did not lead the
way.”

However, some students maintain that the cost of the reactor was
worth the convenience and advantage.

“The knowledge the reactor has taught me isn’t
something you can get from a textbook and is priceless,” said
Engineering graduate student Reuben Sorensen. “Before, you
got some hands-on experience. Now, you don’t really have a
chance to enjoy the science of it.”

When the regents were making the decision, students and
professors in the nuclear engineering department made a substantial
effort to obtain government grants to pay for the reactor’s
use.

“We made our protest in due fashion, but we lost the
battle,” Lee said. “Apparently, the money came in too
late and wasn’t enough”

The reactor was originally commissioned in the 1950s, just after
World War II. “The community recently saw the introduction of
nuclear weaponry, while a significant number of citizens of
Michigan lost their lives in the war,” Francis said.
“(At the time), as a memorial, it seemed appropriate to
demonstrate the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

Lee recently requested the construction of an accelerator-based
neutron generator, which would replace some of the former functions
of the reactor.

“It won’t be a substitute, but we’ll have to
get by,” Lee said.


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