Reed College is currently the only fully undergraduate college campus with a nuclear reactor. As the college itself has a number of peculiarities and traditions, the reactor facility has a history of being different from other research reactors in the area.

One thing that distinguishes the Reed Reactor is its size. The reactor itself is housed underneath the Psychology building, which in Olde Reed used to be the Chemistry building. The core is water-cooled in a pool 25 feet deep, in a bay resembling a small warehouse. Found in the bay also are a table for preparing and examining samples, several pieces of survey equipment and sets of contamination clothing, and the secondary cooling system and heat exchanger. Tours to the facility are led in through the control room, where they can recieve a short explaination on the reactor's console. After signing in and recieving dosimetry, the tour proceeds to the bay under the guidance of either a lisenced operator or a trainee. The reactor is brought to power, displaying a blue glow from the small amount of Cerenkov radiation at the bottom of the pool.

In order to become an operator at the Reed Reactor Facility, a student must take a full-year training course in basic nuclear physics, reactor operating procedures, government regulations, and protocol regarding contamination and emergencies. At the end of the year, just in time to coincide with Reed College's Renn Fayre and reading week, the trainee is given a full examination by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including a written examination and a walkthrough of reactor operations. After they pass, the students are full operators, and are able to earn pay for running the reactor and teaching the next batch of trainees. Note that none of the trainees are obligated to be hard science majors; a large number are majoring in English, art, history, or other fields covered broadly by the term 'humanities' rather than 'science.'

The Reed Reactor operates at a maximum of 250 kilowatts, though standard procedure is to operate at no higher than 240 kW. The reactor is fueled by enriched uranium, and the control rods are a mixture of borated carbon. Its neutron source for controlling startup is made of americium and beryllium. The system is moderated by zirconium hydride contained in each fuel element, graphite, and water. Very little of the pool water is actually radioactive; most activation comes in the form of nitrogen-16 formed from the oxygen on each water molecule, which has a half-life of seven seconds and decays to stable by the time it reaches the surface of the pool. The reactor is cooled by water, which flows through a heat exchanger and back into the facility, and never mixes with outside water once it has been in the core. One of the safest reactors in the world, the reactor cannot generate enough heat to melt down, and in the absence of a cooling system would swiftly lose efficiency and ability to generate power.

Irradiation facilities at the reactor are used mainly for neutron activation analysis using in-house gamma-ray spectrometers. Many chemistry and physics thesis students use the reactor to gather data. In addition, some of the reactor operators have pet projects. One longstanding project was to remove what was thought to be a stuck sample tube from the rotary specimen rack. In the mid 1980s, several solutions were tried to remove this tube, including lowering a clay stopper in the hopes that it would adhere to the lid of the tube. Unfortunately, there was no tube, and the clay stopper itself became jammed in the chamber. In a recent cleaning of the entire aparattus, the clay dissolved, and the slot is now open for use again.

As an educational aid, the reactor facility is a compliment to the chemistry and physics departments, providing lab space and the ability to see first-hand the effects of radiation and the decomposition of isotopes by half-life.

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