Power Surge

An updated training reactor offers new opportunities in nuclear engineering
By Cindy Spence

The University of Florida Training Reactor was commissioned in 1959 as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, and today it is one of the five oldest university research reactors still licensed.

As it approached the half-century mark, it was due for a makeover, however, and no one is more excited to see it emerge from that process and “go critical” again than UF Nuclear Engineering Program Director Jim Baciak.

“I think I’m the last person on campus who actually saw that reactor operate,” says Baciak, a materials science and engineering professor at UF from 2004-2010. “We did an experiment for one of my classes in 2007, and that was the last time it was used.”

On track to be recommissioned this spring, the refurbished reactor will open new research and education opportunities at an exciting time for UF’s Nuclear Engineering Program. Like others throughout the U.S., the UF program had languished for a couple of decades. Power plants were not being built and the demand for nuclear scientists was low.

Today, with the latest generation of nuclear power reactors ready to go online and others on order, and advances in nuclear science, UF’s program and others are seeing healthy gains in enrollment.

Baciak returned to UF in 2012 after two years at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, rejoining a faculty that includes reactor director Kelly Jordan, an R&D 100 award winner in 2013 for innovation in nuclear security technology. Baciak was named program director in 2014 and began hiring faculty and adding students. Two new faculty members joined, and enrollment of Ph.D. students, down to half a dozen two or three years ago, stands at 25 and by fall should be at 32 or 33. In what Baciak calls “the old days,” the UF program was in the top 10 and, he says, “I think we can get back there in relatively short order.”

Baciak credits Jordan with keeping the arduous task of reactor renovation on course and for using it as a research opportunity to investigate ways to switch from midcentury analog equipment to modern digital equipment. While the reactor has been idle, nearly everything around it has been replaced and other modern features, like around-the-clock cameras for surveillance and monitoring experiments, has been added.

“We’ve pretty much replaced everything,” Baciak says. “The only thing that’s going to be old is the concrete and some graphite blocks.”

While some universities have decommissioned their research reactors, Baciak is glad UF decided to remain part of the university reactor fleet, which numbers fewer than 30. Research reactors play an important role in training the next generation of nuclear scientists and power plant operators. They also function as a neutron source for experiments that range from medical to archaeological.

“Strategically, if you have a reactor, it allows you to incorporate it into your education and research program, and gives you the ability to do a lot of things some other nuclear programs cannot do,” Baciak says. “We can actually teach our students how to operate a reactor, how to bring it up to critical power safely and translate what they learn to the real world.

“It also allows us to irradiate materials and learn how they perform under high-intensity radiation,” Baciak says. “We can use our neutron imaging capabilities for non-destructive analysis that can be interesting for fields like medicine and archaeology and forensic science.

“We hope others on campus will take advantage of it.”

The reactor update opened new avenues of research, Jordan said. The research reactor does not produce electricity, so it can function as a testbed for modernization. As reactors nationwide aged, technology marched on.

“The control rooms look like something in a bad sci-fi movie,” Jordan says. “In the nuclear world, from a control perspective, everything runs on 1970s technologies; it’s all analog. It’s the last sector of anything, anywhere that still runs on analog.”

For reactor repairs, and people who can do the repairs, that became a problem.

“Nobody is producing new electrical engineers that are experts in analog,” Jordan says. “Everything becomes a custom design, and that’s not sustainable.”

Digital equipment is available, but installing it is not as simple as turning a reactor off, putting new controls into place, and turning the reactor back on. Initially, both systems are used simultaneously. This allows operators to confirm that the digital equipment works as planned and generates data to assure regulators the digital system works properly. The long history with analog is part of what makes it safe. The goal is to gain that history with digital controls without compromising safety.

“Safety and reliability are the things you’re shooting for most: knowing how, when, and why your equipment is going to fail is about the most valuable thing you can know,” Jordan says. “With analog technologies, you have 40 years of experience with these things. We don’t have that with digital technologies yet.”

That’s where the UF research reactor comes in. It will be the first to accomplish the switch from analog to digital, and provides a safe testbed for the digital learning curve.

The presence of a research reactor was a plus for Leigh Winfrey, UF’s newest nuclear engineering faculty member. When she was working at Virginia Tech, she had to travel to North Carolina State University when she “needed neutrons.”

Baciak says Winfrey, who is only the second woman ever on the nuclear engineering faculty, is reviving an area UF has not had since the 1990s: plasma physics and fusion. It’s a dynamic area he expects to attract students and research projects.

The bread and butter of nuclear science is fission, the splitting of atoms to create energy. Fusion seeks to do the opposite. In fusion, tritium and deuterium atoms combine under ultra-high pressure and temperature, releasing huge amounts of energy that dwarf the energy produced by fission. The sun is powered by fusion.

On earth, fusion presents issues, Winfrey says. The physics of confining the reaction, without touching it, is an interesting physics question. Magnetic fields might work, but then, the next question is how to add more tritium and deuterium to sustain the reaction. That requires fusion pellet injections at super high speeds that can enter an area about the size of a small room that is as hot as the sun.

“How you do that is a really interesting question,” says Winfrey, and one that brings in her interest in plasma physics.

“Fun fact, about 99 percent of the matter in the universe is plasma, and plasmas have a number of applications for materials processing and making new materials,” Winfrey says. “Computer processors use plasmas, new running clothes use plasmas, they can be used in just about any industry you can think of.”

A plasma is any atom, compound or molecule that has had some or all of its electrons removed to produce a charge. Neon restaurant signs are plasmas. In nuclear engineering, plasmas are useful in producing thin films for impermeable coatings to contain the radiation from spent fuel.

“The work now is to come up with a material that can take thermal and radiation stresses, and be picked up and moved around safely,” Winfrey says. “Plasma physicists are sometimes not part of nuclear programs, so I’m happy we can do it here.”

UF made a good first impression on Winfrey last spring, when Jordan invited her to give a seminar. The talk was in March on the first day and during the first game of March Madness and the room was full.

“I said I could stop at half an hour, and we were still going an hour and a half later,” Winfrey says. “The students were incredibly engaging.”

Baciak, Jordan and Winfrey all agree that nuclear engineering programs need to communicate the benefits of their science and ease the qualms of those who fear it.

“It comes down to radiation. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, or you don’t realize you see it, touch it and feel it every day,” Winfrey says.

Baciak says the resurgence in new plant orders, especially for countries like China, shows that people realize nuclear energy is a reliable way to produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Other countries have embraced it, like France, which gets 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

Researchers are constantly looking for better and more cost-effective ways of reusing spent fuel, Baciak says.

“If you take all the radioactive spent fuel from throughout the country for the last 50 years, you could stack it about 10 meters high, end zone to end zone in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium,” Baciak says. “If we reprocessed it, instead of end zone to end zone, it would be from the 10-yard line to the end zone.”

Baciak is not opposed to other alternative energy sources; he once owned a home with solar heating panels. But nuclear energy should be part of the mix, he says.

Jordan agrees, pointing out, “We ruined an entire Gulf just kind of doing our normal day to day thing, drilling oil, and we’re scared of nuclear,” Jordan says. “What scares the heck out of me is this business of global warming.”

The nuclear culture in the United States is a safety-first culture, Jordan says, joking that nuclear engineers are so risk-averse that they have incredibly low divorce rates.

The striking differences between the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States and accidents overseas — Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 — should ease some public concern, Baciak says. A cooling malfunction at Three Mile Island caused part of a core to melt, releasing some radioactive gas a few days afterward, which dispersed to background radiation levels (there is constant background radiation in
the air).

By contrast, in the Chernobyl accident, as a result of flawed design and inadequately trained personnel, two plant workers died that night and 28 people died within the next few weeks from acute radiation poisoning. In Fukushima, a tsunami swamped the plant, and three cores melted, causing the evacuation of more than 100,000 people. The Fukushima plant had ignored a recommendation to build a sea wall.

Economics may help in communicating nuclear power advantages, Baciak says. In the Pacific Northwest, with nuclear and hydroelectric sources of power, electricity costs about 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour. In the Southeast, with primarily coal and natural gas utilities, electricity costs more than twice that. That’s why, he says, nuclear plants are on order in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

With nuclear plants in demand, the need for research grows as well. Baciak says the program has brought in $10 million in the last two years. And the program got another boost when Coquí RadioPharmaceuticals announced that it will build a $250 million radioisotope facility near UF’s Progress Park, citing proximity to UF’s nuclear engineering program as one of the factors.

When it opens, Coquí will become the only U.S. supplier of technetium, a material critical in about 18 million medical procedures each year. Canadian sources of technetium are being decommissioned, so Coquí provides a secure, national supply chain, Baciak says.

“Nuclear power, nuclear science truly has benefits for our country and for the earth,” Baciak says. “And we’d like to do a better job of communicating that.”


  • James Baciak, Associate Professor and Director of Nuclear Engineering Program
  • Kelly Jordan, Associate Professor of Nuclear Engineering
  • Leigh Winfrey, Associate Professor of Nuclear Engineering

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This article was originally featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Explore Magazine.