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K-State Today

October 16, 2012

50 and still growing: University's reactor, nuclear engineering program celebrate anniversary and focus on future research, education contributions to industry

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Since it was first powered up 50 years ago in Ward Hall, the nuclear reactor at Kansas State University has been helping the College of Engineering with four key objectives when it comes to nuclear engineering: education, research, outreach and training.

A closed ceremony Oct. 16 at the reactor, featuring current and past faculty members as well students and College of Engineering administrators, will be conducted in Ward Hall. It includes powering up the reactor at 8:27 p.m. -- the same time it was first brought to power on Oct. 16, 1962.

Kansas State University's reactor is one of only 25 operating university research reactors in the nation, which gives the university an advantage in performing both nuclear research and training new nuclear engineers, said Jeff Geuther, manager of the university's reactor.

Today the reactor is licensed to operate at up to 1250 kW of thermal power, a significant increase from its first license, which only allowed it to operate at 100 kW of thermal power, Geuther said.

As the nuclear engineering field has changed, so has Kansas State University's program. Up until 1996 the nuclear engineering program was a separate department. But because of a nationwide decrease in nuclear engineering enrollment, the university merged the nuclear and mechanical engineering programs into the department of mechanical and nuclear engineering.

The move was made to preserve the nuclear program, which now enjoys a strong enrollment, Geuther said.

While around 2,000 people tour the reactor facility each year, its main focus remains on research and education.

"The research focus in the nuclear engineering program has narrowed somewhat, with a heavy emphasis on radiation detection," said Ken Shultis, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering professor. "This is partly due to the large amount of funding available for neutron detector development."

Kansas State University has become a national leader neutron detector development, which includes neutron detector testing. Nuclear engineering faculty have secured several large grants from the U.S. departments of Defense and Energy, National Science Foundation and industry sources.

Several classes use the nuclear reactor. Students operate the reactor under supervision of Geuther's staff and qualified faculty to perform laboratory experiments. Many other classes have students come in for tours or the classes will use samples irradiated in the reactor's core for experiments and projects -- again, all under proper supervision.

Some Kansas State University undergraduates obtain licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate the reactor, gaining worthwhile experience that will help them in securing a job in the nuclear industry, Geuther said.

"These students make great contributions to the operation and maintenance of the facility," he said. "The ability to operate a nuclear reactor as part of course work helps reinforce key concepts learned in class, and helps prepare students for future careers in the nuclear power industry or nuclear reactor design."

Geuther said job prospects in the industry are good.

"The nuclear workforce is aging, with an average age of worker at approximately 50 years old," he said. "Therefore, new nuclear graduates are in high demand to fill positions left vacant as workers retire."

The need for new nuclear engineers is being aided by renewed interest in building nuclear plants, Geuther said. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the NRC is currently reviewing license applications for 16 new nuclear power plants in the U.S.

More information on Kansas State University's nuclear engineering program and reactor is available at www.mne.ksu.edu/research/centers/reactor.