sealPurdue News

October 21, 2002

Purdue joins effort to design 21st century nuclear research reactors

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue is one of four Big Ten universities making up a new federally funded consortium that will design the next generation of nuclear reactors for research and education.

The four universities in the consortium are Pennsylvania State University, Purdue, the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin – all universities considered to have strong nuclear engineering undergraduate and graduate education programs. Penn State will lead the consortium.

"While the common perception is that nuclear energy is dead, in truth, it is far from dead," said Jack Brenizer, a professor and program chair of nuclear engineering at Penn State.

Brenizer said many existing power reactors have filed for license extensions, and a new generation of power reactors is currently under development. At the moment, electricity produced by nuclear power is slightly cheaper than that from all other fuels, he said.

The consortium is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and will receive $1.97 million annually for five years.

"Each university in the consortium brings a different expertise to the mix," Brenizer said. "But each also has experts who usually work alone and will now have colleagues with whom to work."

Future university research and training reactors will be needed to replace an aging collection of university-operated reactors, many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s, said Lefteri Tsoukalas, head of Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering.

"In the 1960s, there were over 80 university research reactors," said Tsoukalas, a professor of nuclear engineering. "Now there are fewer than 30.

"At the rate we're going, there will be nothing left to provide the research infrastructure, the training and so forth."

Tsoukalas discussed the new consortium on Thursday (10/17) during the Americas Nuclear Energy Symposium – or ANES 2002 – in Miami. The international forum was sponsored by industry and government to provide up-to-date information about the latest nuclear technologies and upcoming Department of Energy initiatives.

Recent scientific advances have created exciting new opportunities for using the research reactors in fields ranging from nanotechnology to archeology, medicine to nuclear physics and materials science, Tsoukalas said.

Purdue operates a small nuclear reactor for educational purposes at its West Lafayette campus. The nuclear facility, housed in the basement of the Electrical Engineering Building, does not produce electricity and is used for teaching and training nuclear engineering students. Built in 1961, the reactor is operated under strict security guidelines and is regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The reactor is about the size of a two-foot cube and produces only about one-millionth as much energy as that of a commercial nuclear reactor.

Nuclear fission reactions that occur inside the reactors cause an atom's nucleus to split, yielding new nuclei and subatomic particles called neutrons.

"These reactors are fascinating tools," Tsoukalas said. "There are tremendous opportunities for using neutrons in areas including nanotechnology, medicine, physics, archeological dating and the life sciences."

For example, neutrons are used to study the properties of matter, to analyze and probe materials, genes and tiny structures, such as the gears and levers being fashioned for new kinds of minuscule machines in nanotechnology. Some of today's applications hadn't even been imagined decades ago, when current research reactors were being built. Those applications require neutrons with higher energies than those produced with existing research reactors, Tsoukalas said.

"The consortium's focus will be to develop tools for advancing research reactor technology to meet the needs of this century," Tsoukalas said. "Our goal is to focus on developing what will be required for nuclear research reactors in 2030 and beyond, knowing what we know now."

The lead researchers from Purdue will be Tsoukalas and Tatjana Jevremovic, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering.

Each of the four consortia in DOE's Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education program will focus on a different aspect of a project to improve university research reactors and nuclear engineering programs. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced the program June 10.

"If we are to meet the energy, environmental and medical challenges of the future, then initiatives like these are absolutely critical to preparing the next generation of nuclear engineers and scientists," Abraham said in a DOE statement.

Scientists should be able to complete designs for the next-generation reactors in about 10 years, Tsoukalas said.

The Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology supports the Innovations in Nuclear Education and Infrastructure program.

Sources: Lefteri H. Tsoukalas, (765) 494-5742,

Jack Brenizer, (814) 863-6384,

James F. Stubbins, professor, University of Illinois, (217) 333-6474,

Michael L. Corradini, professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, (608) 263-1648,


Emil Venere, Purdue University, (765) 494-4709,

A'ndrea Elyse Messer, Pennsylvania State University, (814) 865-9481

Vicki Fong, Pennsylvania State University, (814) 865-9481

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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