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The large room on the ground floor of Virginia Tech’s Robeson Hall is still a room for science, which is obvious because of the electronic consoles, wires, metal tanks and tubes that fill the space from its concrete floor to its nearly two-story-high ceiling.
But this is a room of history, too.
A large hook hangs from the ceiling, once part of an elaborate indoor crane operation now mostly hidden in the corner of the wide room. Two large, wooden, swinging doors that used to open to the outdoors now seal off an entrance to an adjacent building. This room, a large section of a building constructed during the Cold War, was built for a purpose: to house a nuclear reactor on the Virginia Tech campus.
For nearly 25 years, from 1960 until 1985, Virginia Tech operated its very own research reactor just steps from the Drillfield where thousands of students passed, almost all of them oblivious to the atomic research happening inside the Hokie Stone walls of Robeson Hall.
“A lot of people in town didn’t know that we even had a research reactor,” said Mark Pierson, a retired nuclear engineering professor who arrived at Tech in 2007, when the university revived its nuclear program. He said he learned the reactor’s history from other professors who were at Tech when the machine was working.
Certainly, few folks would have understood the experiments happening inside the 100,000-watt reactor during the Cold War when the United States made nuclear science a priority for military, energy and national security issues. From the 1940s through the 1970s, about 70 small reactors were constructed for teaching purposes, with most of those built on college campuses across the United States.
Virginia Tech’s reactor, which started up in early 1960, was one of the first of its kind to be housed on a college campus. The University of Virginia also housed a teaching reactor, which was shut down in 1998.
The plan was to send a generation of nuclear engineers and experts into the world to build a brave new nuclear future. Then, those dreams literally melted.
The Three Mile Island nuclear accident on March 28, 1979, when a reactor located along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania partially melted down and sent radiation into the air, became the largest nuclear-related catastrophe in the United States and increased opposition to the nuclear industry. Three Mile Island significantly stunted the growth of nuclear-generated power in the United States, which meant that the demand for nuclear engineers, like those studying at Virginia Tech, evaporated. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union (in what is now a part of Ukraine) in 1986, when a reactor exploded and released radioactive gases into the atmosphere that reached several countries, was even more catastrophic.
Back in Blacksburg, the nuclear engineering program folded in 1985 and the reactor was shut down and decommissioned. By 1988, the machine had been demolished and removed, its radioactive fuel sent to the Department of Energy’s Savannah River site in South Carolina for recycling and some of the non-radioactive pieces and concrete buried deep in the university’s landfill off Prices Fork Road. Virginia Tech’s nuclear age appeared to be over.
Now, though, with Gov. Glenn Youngkin and a host of Virginia politicians backing small modular reactors, possibly in Southwest Virginia, nuclear energy might get another jolt in the commonwealth. Virginia Tech jumpstarted its nuclear engineering program in 2007 and its professors are urging more investment in nuclear technology.
Although it’s rather unlikely that Tech would ever house a reactor similar to the one that used to sit in Robeson Hall, the university could build microreactors, small enough to be hauled in trailers, that could provide power as well as education opportunities. Colleges in other states are already doing this, said Alireza Haghighat, the director of Tech’s nuclear engineering program who was brought to Blacksburg in 2011 from the University of Florida.
Haghighat has advised four different Virginia governors — two Democratic, two Republican — about nuclear issues and helped develop the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority, which brought energy companies together with Tech, UVa, Virginia Commonwealth University and Liberty University, to work for continued development of a statewide nuclear industry.
“A lot of positive things are happening,” Haghighat said, adding that Virginia colleges need to turn out more nuclear engineering graduates to support industry growth.
“If we’re going to develop this technology, we need to teach it,” he said. “We can’t borrow from other states.”
A nuclear era
That was the plan 60 years ago, too.
Virginia Tech affiliated itself with nuclear research happening at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the 1940s, not long after the site housed the Manhattan Project, the top-secret project that developed the atomic bombs that were used in World War II.
In the 1950s, T. Marshall Hahn became head of the physics department at Tech and pushed hard for the university to become a leader in the expanding field of nuclear research. In the 1960s, Hahn became one of Virginia Tech’s most significant presidents by shepherding the school’s transformation from a rural, military-based, mostly white, all-male college into a broad-based, coeducational institution that improved academic offerings and dropped mandatory military service for students. During his time as a physics professor, Hahn and fellow professor Andy Robeson — whose father, Frank, was the namesake of Robeson Hall — strengthened ties with Oak Ridge and landed a nuclear reactor simulator and later the full-fledged reactor, both machines believed to be the first ever owned by a university.
Robeson Hall, named for former department head Frank Leigh Robeson, was built in the late 1950s with the large room on the ground floor specifically designed to house the reactor. The reactor would include uranium rods and reflectors made of graphite that could withstand high temperatures. The machine was considered a critical reactor, which meant that it could generate self-sustaining chain reactions, where neutrons slammed into atoms and caused them to split, the process known as fission. As atoms split, large amounts of energy are released, energy that could be harnessed to operate turbines to create electricity. Tech’s reactor was limited in the amount of energy it could produce.
Old photographs and drawings of the reactor reveal a gray, drab-looking, L-shaped “monolith,” as described by Doug Smiley, who was a radiation safety officer at Virginia Tech when the reactor was still operational in the 1980s. The reactor was like a huge box, with solid fuel elements inside surrounded by the graphite panels that reflected neutrons back to the center of the box, creating the nuclear reactions that students studied. The reactor was cooled by water from a large tank.
The structure stood more than 10 feet tall and included stairs and railings that allowed students to climb atop the reactor. A nearby console — which, looking at photographs from the 1970s, was outfitted with knobs, lights, switches, digital numbers, monitors and other high-tech gadgetry — resembled the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise from “Star Trek.”
Despite its fairly imposing size and technical components that were bewildering to non-engineering types, Tech’s reactor was merely a teaching tool that literally created more heat than light.
“All it generated was heat, no electricity,” Smiley said.
Still, students and staff were alert to potential dangers. A radiation monitor was installed in a classroom on the second floor directly above the reactor — just in case. No radiation was ever detected in the classroom, Smiley said.
When the reactor started in January 1960, Tech students were able to get hands-on training for becoming reactor operators. Students and professors ran experiments, studied neutrons and used the reactor to identify trace elements of materials that were being analyzed.
Tech students used the reactor to perform research for private industries and for NASA, Smiley recalled.
The United States’ nuclear power industry was already waning before Three Mile Island, as activists spoke out about the technology’s radioactive risks.
“Three Mile Island put the skids on a lot of nuclear engineering programs,” Smiley said, even as he noted that the United States has 92 reactors still operating.
Virginia Tech even had its own small-scale nuclear accident in 1971, which necessitated the evacuation of Robeson Hall and the filing of a lengthy investigation by the university that was given the alarming title “Report of the Nuclear Event of November 12, 1971.”
On that day, an object that was being studied became stuck inside the reactor. In the professors’ attempts to dislodge the object, small amounts of radiation were released and the reactor’s emergency alarm sounded, prompting evacuation of the building.
In a follow-up report, professor Ronald Onega described the entire event and said that he and at least one other person were sent to the hospital because of their potential exposure to radiation. Onega told an investigator that he had measured small amounts of radiation in the room. Those amounts were less than what patients receive during a chest X-ray.
After Tech shuttered its nuclear program in 1985, the reactor was removed in stages. Smiley said workers used a diamond-tipped saw to cut through the monolith’s base. The fuel and the reactor’s guts were shipped to facilities that handled radioactive waste. The non-radioactive pieces were disposed of in the university-owned landfill after review and approval of scientists from Oak Ridge and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Smiley said.
Smiley said that removal of the reactor was an unhappy moment for his boss, Keith Furr, who had been the director of the nuclear reactor facility in Robeson Hall.
“I can’t say that he showed real sadness” about the reactor’s removal, Smiley said. “But we all felt frustration that we had to shut the reactor down.”
Back to the future?
The Robeson Hall room is still used for experiments, which include testing radiation-detection equipment, said Jonathan Link, a physics professor at Tech who is affiliated with the nuclear engineering program. He said that no residual radiation from the reactor era remains. If there was, the equipment being tested in the room would detect it.
“If we had radioactivity left over from a reactor, we wouldn’t be able to do this equipment testing here,” Link explained. The devices require a controlled environment for accurate measurements, which wouldn’t be possible if the reactor had left behind radioactive footprints.
Link and Haghighat, the nuclear program director, are hopeful about the future of nuclear engineering science, and the potential for wider acceptance of nuclear-generated power from the public.
Two generations have been born since the Three Mile Island accident. Haghighat thinks that younger students are excited about the prospects of nuclear power being part of a green-energy strategy, alongside wind and solar, that would move the world past coal and oil, the burning of which results in carbon-dioxide emissions that are the chief cause of human-created climate change.
Even so, Haghighat said that growth of nuclear science programs has been slow, even at Tech. He said that in 1978, the year before Three Mile Island, American universities were home to 99 nuclear engineering programs and 65 research reactors. Today, those numbers are 30 programs and 25 reactors.
“You could say we’re operating at 30% capacity,” Haghighat said.
Virginia Tech’s nuclear programs are mostly at the graduate level, with an undergraduate minor also offered. Twenty-five students are enrolled in graduate and doctoral classes, and 70 are working toward minors. The program has three and a half full-time teachers.
“We need to increase that to between 12 and 20,” he said.
The Virginia General Assembly took steps this year in support of nuclear research by creating a grant fund to encourage nuclear programs at universities and, after some political wrangling, approving the use of state money to support new energy technologies that include geothermal, advanced wind and solar projects, and nuclear technologies.
Haghighat knows that nuclear research faces opposition from people who worry about safety and nuclear waste and from potential political headwinds, especially when it comes to establishing small modular reactors in places such as Southwest Virginia.
But he thinks there might be a day when Virginia Tech is home to a nuclear reactor. Just not an enormous one that requires a specially designed room.
“We have significant opportunities if we have a microreactor,” he said. “It would be enormous for the university and for the state. The rest of the country would come work for us. ‘If you build it, they will come,’ the saying goes.”
For more coverage of the proposed nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia, find all our stories here.