Particles moving faster than the speed of light. Elements transmuted from one to another. A million watts of power. Hands-on practice controlling a nuclear reactor.
These are some of the selling points of Chemistry 490, a specialized elective class offered by Donald Wall, director of WSU’s Nuclear Radiation Center, which houses the university’s research and teaching nuclear reactor. The course, which has been filled to capacity both times it’s been taught, gives students of all backgrounds a chance to learn enough about nuclear reactors to pass the formidable exam to become a federally licensed nuclear Reactor Operator (RO).
For the students, the class is a whole new world, one with some serious math, physics, and chemistry and much else about how to operate reactors.
“And it all comes together in the RO exam,” says senior English major Mathew King. “There’s a written, an operations, and an oral part of the test.”
By “operations,” King means responding on the fly, actually sitting at the controls of WSU’s nuclear reactor, to anything the examiner can throw at the person applying for a license. A sudden increase in power. A sudden decrease. A simulated earthquake. A full “SCRAM,” an acronym going back to the very first atomic reactor in the United States. It’s the ultimate shut-off in case of emergency, known as the “Safety Control Rod Ax Man,” who literally wielded an ax to cut through ropes and quickly release the control rods, “turning off” a runaway reactor and potentially saving the day.
King, a veteran of Chemistry 490, took the RO exam and passed it several semesters ago. This winter he took the Senior Reactor Operator (SRO) exam.
“Someone from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission comes out from D.C. for the exam. The SRO exam is set up so you simply have to know everything” about the reactor, he says. “You don’t know anything about the structure of the exam—it could be anything from oral to operations to written. You just find that out when they start. In my case, it was all oral.”
Taking an oral exam from officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who have flown across the country specifically to give you the exam is pretty intimidating. But by the third question or so, King knew his answers were in the right ballpark and started to breathe more freely.
King credits Chemistry 490, his time working at the reactor, and daily contact with reactor supervisor Corey Hines with helping him achieve his two reactor credentials.
But it’s not yet clear where King will head professionally. He’s only 13 credits shy of a degree in English and is determined to earn his degree. He then can pursue an interest in creative writing or he can go into the nuclear field.
It’s quite clear, however, where another veteran of Chemistry 490 is headed. Chemistry major Jessica Drader took the class as an undergraduate and earned her RO status. She has gone on to be a graduate student in radiochemistry at WSU.
“I wanted the license, and I enjoy operating the reactor,” Drader says. “But that’s all more of a hobby for me. My energy really goes into the PhD-level research I’m involved with under the supervision of Dr. Wall and Professor Ken Nash. They are my co-advisors.”
Drader’s particular interest is aspects of the chemical behavior of americium, curium, and other radioactive material that is a part of a much larger research effort into creating the next-generation technology for nuclear fuel recycling. Currently fuel recycling—as a matter of government policy going back to the 1970s—isn’t practiced in the United States even though it was developed in this country. It is, however, used in France, Great Britain, and Japan and could become standard practice in here if our policies change. The aim of the research at WSU is to improve the selectivity and efficiency of the process to reduce waste to very small and relatively easily manageable amounts.
A future of abundant electrical power and well-managed nuclear waste animates the usually carefully measured conversation of Don Wall. He volunteered to teach Chem. 490 on top of his other responsibilities at the nuclear reactor because he believes the young generation might be open to fresh ideas about what he considers “green” energy. In the face of carbon concerns and rapid worldwide industrialization, nuclear power creating abundant electricity is part of Wall’s vision for the future.
“Nuclear energy is clean, safe, and reliable,” he says. “It’s a baseload power source that can keep the lights on during a still night when solar and wind are not available. It’s much cleaner and safer than coal, which we still lean on heavily in this country for electrical generation.”
Wall likes to point out that France gets about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. France recycles its fuel rod waste and, in fact, does the same on a commercial basis for some other nations.
“That could be us,” Wall says.
Wall has an open-door policy for groups of visitors at WSU’s nuclear reactor, believing that demystifying the place and its operations can only help reduce the fear of the technology in which he believes so strongly. He shows visitors the reactor pool and explains how the careful design of WSU’s reactor ensures it cannot fall into a “runaway” mode.
Wall also likes to explain to people on the tours that undergraduates who earn their RO license at WSU and get some experience on the university reactor can find jobs in the nuclear power industry with starting salaries like $75,000. That can get the attention of parents.
King, the English major, sometimes helps with the visits.
“It’s fun to be here with a tour. When I say I’m an English major, there’s shock that’s clear on people’s faces,” King says with a smile.
But in the world of Chemistry 490 as run by Wall, everyone interested in nuclear technology is welcome.
“My world,” he says, “is one where people with enthusiastic idealism can make a real contribution that will make the world a better place to live.”