This week, as construction fences go up and equipment is mobilized at the More Hall Annex, the closing chapter of an era in UW engineering will begin.
Work crews will spend the coming months on the decontamination and decommissioning of the tiny nuclear research reactor that for nearly three decades formed the core of the UW’s nuclear engineering program.
“It is a significant event, in its way,” said Michael Carette, assistant to the dean for facilities in the College of Engineering. “It’s not every day that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decommissions a reactor.”
The reactor officially ceased activity in 1988, and the Department of Nuclear Engineering was dissolved in 1992. The fuel rods — the most hazardous part of a nuclear reactor — were removed more than 15 years ago and transported to a disposal site in Idaho. But complete decommissioning has awaited state funding.
The contract for the job was awarded in December to LVI Environmental Services Inc. Work at the site is expected to last one year.
The brunt of that work involves removal of the reactor components and associated equipment, some of which contain small amounts of radioactivity, according to Liz Peterson in the UW Capital Projects Office who is project manager for the decontamination and decommissioning. Those components will be demolished, put into containers and transported off-site for disposal at appropriate facilities, under the direction of the NRC and in accordance with all state and federal requirements.
Any remaining waste would be characterized by industry standards as low level, Peterson said. Physical and administrative controls are in place that will prevent such remnants from coming into contact with the University environment.
“We’re providing a diligent and layered oversight,” Peterson said. “The UW’s Capital Projects Office and Department of Environmental Health and Safety each have three representatives providing oversight. The consultant who designed the job has one full-time person on site, and the NRC has one full-time inspector assigned to the project.”
In addition, she said, LVI is experienced in such jobs and has an excellent track record.
“This is the last step in what has been a lengthy process,” Peterson said. “Compared to work that has already been done, it’s a safe and easy step. Nevertheless, we’re putting it under a microscope to make sure everything goes smoothly. We are taking every precaution for safety, from the design of the project to its implementation.”
She added that the NRC guidelines under which the project will be completed are stricter than those officials would be required to follow had the university applied for a license termination from the NRC today.
A 12-member group, the More Hall Annex Decommissioning Technical and Safety Committee, has been overseeing the project as it is carried out under the decommissioning order from the NRC. As the work starts, that committee will expand, according to Weldon Ihrig, UW executive vice president.
“Two to four students will be added, selected by the Associated Students of the University of Washington and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate,” Ihrig said. “In addition, there will be two faculty members selected by the Faculty Senate, and two staff members selected by Human Resources.”
The UW reactor is one of two at universities in the process of being decommissioned — the other is located at the University of Illinois in Urbana.
All told, the NRC currently regulates approximately 50 research and test reactors — also known as “non-power” reactors — around the country. Such reactors generate miniscule amounts of power and are used for research and teaching in a wide range of fields, including biology, physics, chemistry and medicine. About half of such reactors are located on university campuses. Nearby schools with operating non-power reactors include Washington State University in Pullman and Oregon State University in Corvallis.
According to one of its designers, the UW’s reactor was among the most unusual ever built.
“It was the only reactor in the world with glass windows,” A. Les Babb, founding chair of the nuclear engineering department who also had a hand in the reactor’s design, told Columns magazine in a 2004 interview.
Babb said that officials sought to make operations at the site as visible as possible so that the public would not be nervous about what was going on in the building. So passers-by, strolling between upper and lower campus via the pedestrian bridge to the Hec Edmundson Pavilion, could clearly see the reactor through the glass walls, appearing as a collection of metal boxes about the size of a large U-Haul trailer.
Before being bid last October, the project was split into two contracts: one for decommissioning of the building and the other for its demolition. The decommissioning phase is expected to be complete by the end of 2007, at which point the NRC will officially release the facility. The contract for the demolition hasn’t yet been put out for bid.