Texas A&M Engineering converts research reactor

October 13, 2006
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M Engineering and the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have successfully converted the university's 1-megawatt TRIGA research reactor's fuel from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU). This is the first research reactor conversion in the United States since the creation of NNSA's Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) in May 2004. As a part of its nonproliferation mission, NNSA converts research reactors in the United States and around the world from operating on HEU to LEU fuel. The effort is part of the Bush administration's efforts to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium in civilian applications around the world. The reactor is part of the Nuclear Science Center, a research center jointly operated by the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES). TEES is the engineering research agency of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System. Texas A&M Engineering and NNSA worked closely with the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to complete this reactor conversion in less than 18 months. U.S. Representative Chet Edwards and senior officials from NNSA, DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy and the NRC joined Texas A&M officials in College Station today (Oct. 13) to commemorate the successful fuel conversion of the reactor. "Minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium for civilian purposes makes for good nonproliferation policy around the world," NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks said. "It is a priority for this administration, as demonstrated through the conversion of our own reactors in the United States, to replace HEU -- a nuclear weapons-usable material -- with alternative, more suitable and less dangerous material like low-enriched uranium." Texas A&M University President Robert M. Gates said, "As one of the largest nuclear engineering programs in the nation, we are preparing the next generation of nuclear professionals. Being the first research reactor to convert to low-enriched uranium through the NNSA initiative is an honor and rare opportunity for our university to experience this historic event in nuclear nonproliferation activity. I am immensely proud of the hard work and dedication of Texas A&M Engineering and the Nuclear Science Center staff for their outstanding conversion effort." Edwards agreed. "This innovative nuclear non-proliferation technology at Texas A&M is vital to America's efforts across the world to reduce the threats posed by nuclear terrorism," Edwards said. "As an Aggie, I am proud to support Texas A&M's national leadership role in nuclear terrorism prevention." The conversion of the Texas A&M research reactor supports the 2005 North American Security and Prosperity Partnership under which the United States, Mexico and Canada agreed to complete the conversion of civilian HEU reactors on the North American continent by 2011, provided such LEU fuel is available. Specifically, the United States will convert six university research reactors, Mexico will convert its one research reactor in Mexico City, and Canada will convert three research reactors. This reactor conversion also supports the 2005 Bratislava Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation issued by President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under the statement, the United States and Russia agreed to work together to convert more than 30 U.S.- and Russian-supplied research reactors around the world from the use of HEU to LEU. Brian E. Thomas, chief of the NRC's research and test reactors branch, said, "The Texas A&M conversion was extremely successful, primarily because of close collaboration between the DOE, NNSA, the university and NRC staff. The university responded promptly to the NRC's information needs throughout the review process. Lessons from this conversion will improve the process at other research reactors that switch to LEU." Texas A&M officials said prior to the conversion, their reactor used HEU fuel enriched to contain 70 percent uranium-235 (U-235) -- well below the level of enrichment needed for weapons-grade material, which is 90 percent U-235. Additionally, in the four decades of intense use since the reactor first went into operation, the fuel had depleted to about 60 percent of its original enrichment, rendering the fuel further unusable for weapons. NNSA will also complete the conversion of another research reactor at the University of Florida this month. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative's mission includes returning and securing nuclear fuel, and converting research reactors around the world. Currently, GTRI is working to convert 59 more reactors around the world from HEU to LEU by 2014. Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing; works to reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the United States and abroad. Visit http://www.nnsa.doe.gov for more information.

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