Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Utahns have nuclear reactor in their own backyard

With worldwide attention focused on the nuclear crisis in Japan, many Utahns probably haven't realized there is a nuclear reactor in their own state. It's not in a remote location. In fact, it's considered so safe it's allowed to run chain reactions and produce radiation in a building full of students.

Utah's only nuclear reactor is on the campus of the University of Utah, tucked away in a corner of the Merrill Engineering Building. Students passing by a nondescript door might not know that nuclear energy has been produced just a few steps away for more than three decades.

The reactor is used for teaching and research in the university's nuclear engineering program. It sits in a tank immersed in nearly 10,000 gallons of water, and is used only intermittently.

Last year, the reactor operated a total of less than 69 hours; but it employs the same physics as a big power reactor, according to Professor Emeritus Gary Sandquist. "It produces neutrons, it undergoes fission, it has instrumentation to monitor the neutrons," he said. "Students learn how to bring the reactor up, operate it safely, how to shut it down."

Compared to the utility-scale reactors at big power plants, the University of Utah's reactor is tiny. The nuclear core is barely the size of a microwave oven -- "just two feet by two feet," Sandquist said.

Its power is so low - 100 kilowatts - that it doesn't even need a pressure vessel to contain it. "It can't release any pressure because it doesn't build up any pressure," Sandquist explained, and it never gets very hot. "It's essentially a little bit hotter than room temperature. The reactor heats the water up from about 65 degrees up to maybe 80 degrees after operating for many hours. So it can't possibly melt down or pose any risk."

The reactor's energy levels are so low that students can actually stand close by while it operates -- something that would be impossible in a full-scale power reactor. "That's part of the value of the reactor, is that students can actually visually see and move and manipulate things in the reactor while it's operating," Sanquist said.

The reactor was first activated in 1975. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission shut it down for a few months in the late 1980s because of concerns about inadequate staffing and safety monitoring. It was allowed to restart after those problems were fixed.

In 2005, ABC's "20/20" program raised questions about security. Undercover researchers for the network tested security at 25 similar reactors around the country. At the University of Utah, ABC reported finding unlocked doors, no guards, and no metal detectors. At the time, university officials described the report as exaggerated and said the undercover researchers were actually taken on a public tour. They disputed ABC's conclusions and said the reactor was secure and safe.

In the N.R.C.'s latest inspection report, dated July 8, 2010, the reactor won a clean bill of health. The federal inspectors pointed out no safety or security concerns whatever.

"There's absolutely no risk," Sandquist said. "It would probably be a greater risk that we'd have a tsunami from the West Coast that would reach Salt Lake before the reactor would cause any problems."

According to Sandquist, the reactor is currently undergoing a re-licensing procedure and is expected to operate for another 20 years.

Tire pressure makes a difference

i put on new brake pads front and back and they are rubbing a bit until they break in. that coupled with my rear brake doesn't return to the open position sometimes makes for slow pedaling.

i took apart the rear brake and there is some signs of corrosion where the pump meets the caliper. i cleaned it out as best as possible and hope this will solve problem.

this week i got some hiking in the deep snow out in park city with the dogs thanks to the lovely ms. janet.

monday i was supposed to do 10x3min intervals above LT. instead i got off 7x2min start intervals and 2x20min LT.
coach hates it when i change the plans, but it was a trying day with the brakes

yesterday i rode up emigration then over to big cottonwood canyon and up that. a good solid 4.5 hours of which 70% was just below LT and the rest in sweet spot.

i bumped up my tire pressure from 22psi to 32psi to compensate for new brake pads rubbing. although i could feel the pads slowing me down, the tire pressure made a "BIG" difference.

going up the hills i kept a pretty steady 165-170 heart rate. kept yo-yoing with a roadie all the way up big cottonwood. i would catch him on the steeper parts and lose him on the other parts.

here is the brighton resort at the top. i waved at moodudes condo as i passed. felt great up until then, my saddle started to bother me for the rest of the way. strength was good. legs started off a little dead, then settled in to normal.

gonna take two easy days today and tomorrow and let the legs recover.