Behind a security gate in the southeast corner of the University Park campus sits the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, one of Penn State’s oldest and most renowned research facilities.
The impetus to build a reactor here sprang from President Dwight Eisenhower’s push to develop peacetime uses of nuclear technology. In a speech before the United Nations in 1953, Eisenhower proposed diverting much of the world’s stockpile of fissionable material away from the production of weapons and toward more productive ends. Penn State’s reactor went into service a year and a half later.
“For the first time, neutrons and gamma rays were available for civilian scientists,” says Ünlü. “A vast expansion of fundamental research started at that time.”
Hot cells and cool tools
One of just a dozen active research reactors at U.S. universities, the Breazeale Reactor gives scientists the ability to conduct experiments using neutrons or gamma rays emitted from fission reactions. Neutron-based research begins in the main reaction pool, where 72,000 gallons of water cool the reactor core and act as a barrier to prevent radiation from escaping into the air. The fission reaction in the core is powered by fuel rods of uranium zirconium hydride and is moderated by neutron-absorbing rods of boron carbide. Human operators control the reaction from a console in a nearby room.