Former University reactor to become lab for nuclear research

Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - 4:48pm

More than 10 years after disassembling its nuclear reactor, the University is allocating $12 million to renovate the building and create a Nuclear Engineering Laboratory in the existing space.

The building was first created following World War II, as part of a project called the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project. Its purpose was to honor members of the University who had died in the war, and was recognized by President Dwight Eisenhower as a facility for peaceful nuclear research.

Alum Bob Beyster and his wife Betty donated $5 million of the total budget in 2012, which kicked off a subsequent fundraising campaign to renovate the nuclear facility.

The Nuclear Engineering Laboratory will function as a center for professors, researchers and students to continue research on topics like nuclear energy and advancements in power plant technology. The four-story building will contain, among other features, gamma ray testing centers and student collaboration rooms.

Ronald Gilgenbach, chair of the department of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, said the lab will create a host of new research opportunities.

“This laboratory will make the world a safer place by developing new techniques and guiding policies to detect nuclear weapons materials,” he said.

Dean of Engineering David Munson, Jr., wrote in an e-mail to The Michigan Daily that the original building’s thick walls will make it a good location for nuclear research, as they were built to shield from radiation damage.

Munson added that one of the lab’s focus areas will be nuclear nonproliferation. He also noted that much of the research will be conducted by graduate students, with room for undergraduate research as well.

“The research in the new labs will be oriented at detection and imaging of radioactive sources, with applications to nuclear nonproliferation, and improvements to nuclear power plants,” Munson wrote. “The goal of the U-M work in that regard is to create improved means to detect and localize even small amounts of fissile material, which can be used to make nuclear bombs.  The objective is to make it very difficult to hide this material or transport it across borders.”

Both Munson and Gilgenbach emphasized the need to continue important nuclear research in today’s society and said it will lead to nuclear energy being used in a safer way.

Engineering graduate student Marc Ruch, a nuclear engineering researcher, said part of working in the new facility will involve shining a more positive light on the potential of nuclear energy, as opposed to a sometimes negative connotation associated with nuclear power.

“Nuclear engineering is really the only solution to global warming. It's a source of energy that's economical without producing carbon emissions,” he said. “What this space, in particular, is going to be doing, at least for the lab that I work with, is help improve our ability to detect the proliferation of nuclear weapons as well.”

Similarly, Gilgenbach said the research on safe nuclear energy is a priority and will continue to be when the laboratory is complete.

“The research that we’re doing on nuclear thermal hydraulics will not only make nuclear energy safer, but it will allow us to improve the efficiency of nuclear reactors, since nuclear power is still the only carbon-free baseload energy that’s available that doesn’t rely on wind, sun or essentially hydroelectricity,” he said.