New Director Watches Over URI Nuclear Reactor

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Rhode Island’s nuclear reactor has a new boss overseeing several changes to the little-known research and test facility. Cameron Goodwin, 35, took over in September as director of the Rhode Island Nuclear Science Center, a state agency operated in partnership with the University of Rhode Island and other area universities.

The 50-foot cement box that houses the small nuclear reactor stands in plain sight on URI's Bay Campus, but hardly draws much attention. Academic research is the primary function, with some testing conducted by the biomedical industry. High-school science classes also take tours and participate in laboratory experiments using radiation.

Within the past few months, the facility has been visited or used by students and researchers from URI, Providence College, Brown University, The Greene School, Three River Community College in Connecticut, Central Falls High School, Rogers High School in Newport, BioPAL Laboratories of Worcester, Rhode Island Hospital and even the Boy Scouts.

“We’re really here just to promote education and research,” Goodwin said.

Nuclear in New England

New England is home to four nuclear power plants: the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, Conn.; Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass.; Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vt.; and Seabrook Station in Seabrook, N.H. Less known are three nuclear research and test reactors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the one at URI. All were built about 50 years ago as part of a federal initiative to promote atomic research.

“After the atomic bomb there was a big push for how to harness this for useful purposes,” said Jeff Davis, assistant director of reactor operations at the URI-based facility.

Davis began working at research reactors at age 19, when he got a part-time job at the reactor at Ohio State University. Thirty years later, he’s done every sort of work at a reactor facility and said there’s nothing to fear. “I’m comfortable with it because I know so much about it," he said.

About 30 research reactors still operate across the United States. The URI reactor generates up to 2 megawatts of power, small compared to just one of the 1,200-plus megawatt reactors at Millstone.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Goodwin spent five years in the Navy working with nuclear-powered vessels, including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. She moved on to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government entity that oversees and regulates nuclear reactors.

Goodwin said research reactors aren’t comparable to nuclear power plants. Research reactors simply don’t have the nuclear material or equipment to generate the massive heat of big nuke stations.

Safety matters

There are, of course, health and safety concerns when dealing with nuclear reactors of any size. All visitors and employees at the state nuclear center wear radiation sensors. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is making safety upgrades this year at the facility for its Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a projects that seeks to better safeguard nuclear material, such as uranium, that might be used in weapons of mass destruction or acts of terrorism.

The enhanced security includes new cameras, safety training, and more secure doors and rooms.

The URI reactor is safe enough that a visitor can stand next to the open-pool reactor as it operates and watch the cooling water glow blue. For security reasons, photos and video of the reactor are prohibited.

The DOE removes and disposes of the spent uranium, which is low-enriched and not considered threatening at least for making explosives. Most of the facility's other waste is disposed of with everyday waste. Reactor water is filtered and flushed into the sewage system.

Unlike power plants, research reactors don’t have a set lifespan. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must relicense them every 20 years. A licensing review is expected to be completed this year for the state's reactor. Keeping it running is also cheaper than shutting it down, as the estimated cost to decommission the URI plant is about $30 million. The cost of building a new one at URI or anywhere else would be even more.

“As far as life, as long as we keep replacing fuel as it gets used up, there is no real age limit,” Goodwin said.

The only plans for the facility are for more use by researchers and students. URI also intends to offer a degree in nuclear science. An upgrade of the reactor’s control room is underway and two jobs are available.

Goodwin wants Rhode Islanders to shed the notion that all radiation is bad. “You’re close by to one of the nation’s assets for research,” she said. The public and students “should come by and see how it works.”