A few weeks ago, I bemoaned the fact that my tour of a nuclear generating station didn’t include a peek at the inner workings of the plant. I relayed the same rant over dinner with friends, who tipped me off to something exciting: there is a reactor in my city that I can go visit.
Here in Hamilton, McMaster University has a 5-megawatt open pool reactor nestled in the middle of the verdant campus. They offer tours to school groups, researchers, and nosy nerds; obviously, I signed up (a virtual tour is available here). Our group was hosted by an enthusiastic graduate student who led us through an airlock into the heart of the university’s nuclear program.
Since my interest in nuclear technologies was focused on their role in energy systems, I was surprised to learn that this reactor is not used to generate electricity; its job, instead, is to irradiate materials for research and radioisotope production. In a nuclear power plant, the primary product of the fission reaction is heat, which is used to generate steam, which turns a turbine. But the McMaster reactor’s primary purpose is to research the more fantastical aspects of fission, and the heat from the fission reaction is simply dissipated at nearby cooling towers. As our guide explained, the only beneficiaries are the raccoons who huddle up to the towers for warmth. The tour walked me through the inner workings of the reactor and underscored the fact that the energy released during fission is just one part of the reaction; a nuclear reactor is also an alchemical crucible, transforming matter at the subatomic level.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~16% of opens) was the Wikipedia list of different shot glass standards. In the Members' Slack, we've been chatting about automatic water shut-off valves and the different terminology for go/no-go checks by industry.