PULLMAN – WSU’s TRIGA-type research nuclear reactor was converted this week from high-enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear fuel to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. The conversion is the result of a cooperative effort between the United States National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and WSU. As part of its nuclear nonproliferation mission, NNSA provides support to convert research reactors in the U.S. and around the world that operate on HEU fuel to LEU fuel.
The WSU reactor has been operated with HEU fuel since it was first obtained as a part of the Fuel Life Improvement Program (FLIP) in 1976. The FLIP fuel was designed to operate for very long periods of time.
“Our FLIP fuel is 32 years old and would probably last another 20 to 30 years, but was replaced as required by federal law,” said Donald Wall, director of the WSU Nuclear Radiation Center.
The TRIGA-type HEU research reactor at WSU was converted from the use of HEU to LEU fuel as part of the 2005 North American Security and Prosperity Partnership between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. The partners agreed to convert civilian HEU fueled reactors on the North American continent to LEU fuel by 2011, as LEU fuel becomes available. The U.S. has completed the conversion of five of its six reactors under this agreement, including the reactor at WSU. Mexico has pledged to convert its sole reactor in Mexico City, and Canada has pledged to convert three HEU research reactors.
The Idaho National Laboratory has the lead role in managing the conversions in the United States. The laboratory is responsible for the overall coordination of the conversion activities, including the purchasing of the new LEU fuel. Project managers from the INL coordinate all of the conversion activities including the conversion analyses, the LEU fuel fabrication, core loading and restart of the reactor. The conversion of each of these reactors is under an aggressive two-year schedule involving a multi-disciplinary team consisting of reactor analysts, fuel fabricators, engineers, the licensees, professors, university students, transportation personnel, contractors and various government agencies.
“It has been gratifying to serve in the important role of leading the team responsible for conversions in support of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative’s Convert Program,” said Eric Woolstenhulme, INL project manager for the WSU conversion.
Under the 2005 Bratislava Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation made by President Bush and former President Vladimir Putin in February 2005, the U.S. and Russia agreed to work together to convert more than 30 U.S. and Russian-supplied research reactors that are located outside the United States and Russia.  Since the Bratislava Joint Statement, 13 international research and test reactors have either been converted or verified as shutdown. In the U.S., NNSA has made additional domestic steps towards HEU minimization by converting U.S. university research reactors from the use of the HEU to LEU fuel over the past two years.
The WSU Nuclear Radiation Center serves as a university research resource and also conducts a program in which WSU students can learn to operate the WSU nuclear reactor and become licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a Nuclear Reactor Operators
“WSU is one of the few places in the country where students can get a nuclear reactor operator license – the people who go through our program are in very high demand – they get very good jobs at salaries far above the national average,” Wall said.
WSU also has one of the leading radiochemistry programs in the United States. Students who are interested in studying radiochemistry in the WSU Chemistry Department and at the WSU NRC can get in on the leading edge of nuclear science and technology, and be part of an energy solution which already generates enormous amounts of clean, non-polluting, reliable power, Wall said.
For further information see the WSU NRC Web site at www.wsu.edu/nrc.