Startup: Nuclear Reactions Are Pretty!

It's so soothing!

This is what the inside of a nuclear reactor looks like. Yes, really.

Specifically, this photo comes from the inside of the PULSTAR reactor in North Carolina. This is primarily a research reactor, with an output of only 1MW. Relative to other pool-type reactors using similar technology, it is an extremely inefficient plant, but this is by design. It uses a lot of fuel, produces very high levels of neutron leakage, and generates relatively little power. All of this is by design. While primarily intended for teaching purposes, to allow students of nuclear energy programs to learn a great deal about the many variables involved in nuclear reactions, it has resulted in many interesting side projects. Most recently, it has been used to generate massive quantities of positrons, or anti-electrons, the antimatter counterpart to the electron. Mostly useful for research purposes, this is also the first step in a plot to destroy the Catholic Church. We, of course, had nothing to do with that.

That glow you see is not a result of someone adding a Photoshop effect. In fact, that is what is known as Cherenkov Radiation. In essence, it is what happens when a charged particle exceeds the speed of light through a medium. Remember, c is actually the speed of light in a vacuum. The speed of light through, say, heavy water, is a great deal slower, even less than 0.75c, and it is possible for a charged particle (usually an electron) to exceed that speed. The surrounding molecules will then quickly polarize and then ground, which emits radiation, and the signature blue glow.

If, of course, you manage to see that blue glow in the air rather than water, odds are good that if you’re not already dead by the time your brain registers the sight, you will be shortly thereafter.

But gosh, it sure is pretty.

[Image source: LiveScience]

  • If you see that glow in the air, it could also mean a Tu-119 or NB-36H are having some technical difficulties. Which, in that case, the outcome is probably the same.

    And the lemurs win.

  • This would make a killer night club.

    Club C

  • They sure are…
    I love this shot of the INL's Advanced Test Reactor.
    <img src=""&gt;
    [a la Wikipedia]

    • That's badass. I'm going to replace the nuke explosion on my desktop with this. It's just as dangerous, but more peaceful.

      • Wikipedia has a higher res version…

        • That's what I'm using.

          My God, I love Nuke Week! I don't want it to end!

          • texlenin

            If you squint a bit and pretend, that's what Project Orion would look like if you were standing above
            the pusher plate at the moment of detonation. Shock absorber assembly, oil injection piping, bomb
            injector tube, radioactive flash, it's all there….
            Thank you- I'll be here all week. Try the veal.

  • P161911

    When I was at Georgia Tech in 1996 the Olympic security guys had a fit when they realized that there was a nuclear reactor actually within the Olympic Village. Apparently they removed the fuel for the Olympics. There are probably dozens of small research reactors scattered around the country, some even in the heart of large urban areas.

  • KU used to have one, then something went wrong. About half of the building it is in, they won't let anyone in.

    • tonyola

      I can't find any reference to "something went wrong" with the KU reactor. Any nuclear accident would be pretty big news, especially one on a college campus. All I found was this from KU's website:

      "Named for Clarence L. Burt, a 1908 civil engineering alumnus and benefactor, the yellow-buff brick and limestone building was dedicated Oct. 6, 1962, and housed a small nuclear reactor used by the engineering, radiation and biophysics faculty for research and training. The reactor was built by Bendix Corp.; the building was paid for by federal, state and private funds. The reactor ceased operations in 1985, and in fall 1992 the site was cleaned to Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards and the license terminated."