Nuclear Reactor Laboratory

The Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL) is an interdepartmental center that operates a 5 MW research reactor in support of MIT's educational and research initiatives and goals. Its mission is to provide faculty and students from MIT and other institutions with both a state-of-the-art neutron source and the infrastructure to facilitate use of that source. In addition to the NRL's role as a major center for neutron research, the staff of the NRL is also committed to educating the general public about the benefits of maintaining a strong nuclear energy program by promoting education and training in the nuclear sciences and technologies within the United States.

The reactor, which is designated as the MITR, is the major experimental facility of the NRL. It is a heavy-water reflected, light-water cooled and moderated nuclear reactor that utilizes flat, plate-type, finned, aluminum-clad fuel elements. The average core power density is about 70 kW per liter. The maximum thermal neutron flux available to experimenters is 5 x 1013 neutrons/cm2 s. Experimental facilities available at the MITR include two medical irradiation rooms, beam ports, automatic transfer facilities (pneumatic tubes), and graphite-reflector irradiation facilities. In addition, several in-core sample assemblies are available.

Fortunately, after two decades of declining support for university research reactors, there is now a renewed interest in maintaining the United States leading edge in nuclear engineering education and research. This positive direction is due, in large, to the efforts of many dedicated individuals (academic and government) who envisioned and made possible a way to improve the nation's nuclear educational infrastructure. John A. Bernard, director of the NRL, worked diligently with members of the MIT Administration, the Department of Nuclear Engineering, the university research reactor community, and the US Department of Energy (DOE). As a result of these actions and a subsequent recommendation by the Nuclear Engineering Research Advisory Committee (NERAC), the US DOE initiated the Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education (INIE) Program. This program was established to: provide qualified universities and reactor facilities with funds to improve instrumentation; maintain highly qualified research reactor staff; establish programs that fully integrate the use of university research reactors with nuclear engineering education programs; and establish internal and external user programs.

In response, a major proposal was prepared by John Bernard in coordination with MIT vice president for research Alice P. Gast, Professor Jeffrey P. Freidberg and other faculty from the Department of Nuclear Engineering, as well as others from departments across campus. NRL was very fortunate to be one of the four universities to receive funding under this program. Initially, the NRL was to receive $9 million spread over five years; however, that has changed due to governmental budget cuts and the NRL is now receiving $1 million per year. MIT and the other universities chosen to receive these INIE funds were expected to be and hence are in partnership with national laboratories, other universities, and industry. The NRL partnered with Rhode Island Nuclear Science Center (RINSC). The NRL is in the process of including the reactor located at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as an additional partner. The INIE funds offer the opportunity for the MIT-RINSC-UMASS Lowell collaboration to carry out frontier research and educational training in a number of areas vital to the well being of the nation.

The past year has been extremely active as well as very productive for the NRL. As previously reported, the relicensing of the MITR with a concomitant upgrade in power is in progress. The process of relicensing is long and arduous and involves many interactions and communications between the NRL and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). One major form of communication is a series of questions (from the NRC) and answers (provided by the NRL) on technical specifications and safety analyses. The NRL is currently responding to the third installment of the first set of questions received from the NRC. Until this process is completed, the NRC has authorized the continued operation of the MITR pending its review. That mode of operation has been ongoing since 1999 when the relicensing request was filed. In conjunction with the relicensing effort, many reactor systems were upgraded, augmented, and/or replaced. These efforts are continuing and in the past year include: assembly of the hot cave (small hot cell) acquired through Brookhaven National Laboratory along with the installation of a fire warning and suppression system and new internal electrical supply; labor and materials associated with building this facility were supported by funds received from the INIE Grant, with the facility to be used specifically for creating an in-core sample extraction system (ICSES). A new console was acquired and installed for the BNCT Project thermal beam. In addition, an annunciator side panel and a leak alarm panel were installed in the control room. These as well as the acquisition of a new intercom system were made possible through funds received under the DOE Instrumentation Grant. Plans for new security systems have also been approved and are in the process of being ordered and/or installed.

During the past 45 years of operation, undergraduate and graduate students have benefited tremendously from the hands-on experience they have gained at the NRL. This is a result of students being able to conduct research that has resulted in their successful completion of more than two hundred MS and PhD theses or through the more than 300 students that have participated in the NRL's Reactor Operator Training Program. During this time period, cutting edge research has also been conducted by MIT faculty as well as faculty and scientists from other institutions. Today, the NRL is a world leader in the area of BNCT research. It also boasts state-of-the-art in-core sample assemblies.

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Security and Safety Systems

The MITR has an outstanding safety and operating record that is evidenced by the results of inspections by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the results of which are shown in the table below for the last five years. However, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, security and operating procedures at nuclear power plants and nuclear research facilities including university research reactors were intensely scrutinized. Consequently, John Bernard, the director of the NRL, with the assistance of the MIT News Office and the MIT administration, had to take on the additional task of educating various regional and local government officials and the media, as well as the general public about safety and security at the NRL. This was accomplished through a series of interviews, tours, lectures, and press releases.

In addition, many years ago MIT established a very effective means of ensuring safe operation of the reactor by appointing independent individuals to a committee known as the MIT Reactor Safeguards Committee (MITRSC). Members of that committee are from MIT as well as from industry. They meet regularly during the year and these meetings are comprised, depending on subject matter to be discussed, of the full committee or established subcommittees. They are ultimately responsible for overseeing all nuclear safety issues related to the reactor and ensuring that reactor operation is consistent with MIT policy, rules, operating procedures, and licensing requirements.

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Neutron Capture Therapy

Neutron capture therapy for cancer research, directed by Professor Otto K. Harling, continued for the 16th year with strong support from the NCI and DOE. Fully approved clinical trials of neutron capture therapy were initiated using the new epithermal beam at the MITR. One phase I/II trial for brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, and metastatic melanoma has accrued six subjects and has reached the third dose level outlined in the protocol. It is expected that accrual will continue to accelerate on this trial. The other phase II trial for peripheral melanoma has accrued one subject. The new epithermal neutron irradiation facility has operated flawlessly and met all expectations.

The USDOE is also supporting Professor Harling's group in the upgrading of a second neutron beam at the MITR. This beam is a high intensity thermal neutron beam to be used for small animal irradiations and clinical studies of skin cancer therapy. This upgraded facility has already been used extensively for animal irradiations designed to develop new capture compounds and to study the radiobiology of neutron capture therapy. The upgraded facility also includes all capabilities required for human subjects irradiations. Such irradiations are expected to start next year.

The neutron facilities at the MITR have been incorporated into a new DOE-supported user facility. This user facility allows MIT as well as non-MIT users to carry out neutron experiments relevant to advancing neutron capture therapy. Most of these experiments involve small animal studies. A number of users have already been served in this user mode.

The MIT/Harvard program in neutron capture therapy remains the leading research program in this field in the US and is acknowledged as one of the leading programs in the world.

MITR Inspection Record 1996–2002

Date of Inspection Inspection Type Result
06/10/96 Inspection on Shipping/Effluents/RRPO No deficiencies.
08/21/96 Tour for Non-power Directorate Tour only.
09/16/96 Inspection on Reactor Operations/QA No deficiencies.
04/07/97 Inspection RRPO/BNCT No deficiencies.
09/16/97 Inspection on Safeguards No deficiencies.
09/02/97 Licensing Exams 5 RO + 4 SRO, all passed except one RO who passed a subsequent makeup exam.
11/18/97 Inspection on Reactor Operations No deficiencies.
09/08/98 Licensing Exams 4 RO + 3 SRO, all passed.
10/21/98 Visit on Fission Converter SAR Discussion only.
12/07/98 Inspection on Emergency Prep./RRPO No deficiencies.
03/30/99 Inspection on SNM No deficiencies.
06/28/99 Inspection on RRPO/Requal./Safeguards No deficiencies.
09/30/99 Licensing Exams 3 RO + 1 SRO, all passed.
04/28/00 Inspection of Fission Converter No deficiencies.
09/05/00 Licensing Exams 3 RO + 4 SRO, all passed except one SRO.
01/22/01 Inspection on Reactor Operations/Requal./Safeguards No deficiencies.
06/25/01 Inspection on RRPO No deficiencies.
10/28/01 Inspection on RRPO/Security No deficiencies.
09/04/01 Licensing Exams 3 RO + 2 SRO, all passed.
05/06/02 Inspection on Reactor Operations/Requal./Emergency Prep. No deficiencies
07/09/02 Inspection on RRPO No deficiencies
09/03/02 Licensing Exams 6 RO + 3 SRO, all passed except one RO who passed a subsequent makeup exam, and one SRO.

1) RRPO is Reactor Radiation Protection Office.

2) QA is quality assurance.

3) SAR is Safety Analysis Report.

4) SNM is special nuclear material.

5) RO is Reactor Operator; SRO is Senior Reactor Operator

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Neutron Beam Tube Research

The prompt gamma neutron activation analysis facility was used both for research and in support of the neutron capture therapy clinical trials.

Professor David Cory of NED is using one of the NRL beams to develop a neutron interferometer, which will be used as part of a larger program on quantum information processing and reciprocal space neutron imaging. This project is funded by the INIE grant.

A research program on neutron imaging is being developed by Dr. Richard Lanza of NED, which is intended to demonstrate the practicality of phase contrast thermal neutron imaging by the use of new neutron imaging detectors. This program is also funded from the INIE grant.

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Environmental Research and Radiochemistry

Dr. John A. Bernard and Dr. Lin-Wen Hu have taken on the role of overseeing operation of the NRL's environmental research and radiochemistry laboratories until a permanent senior scientist is hired to supervise this very important NRL facility. The MITR is currently equipped for both prompt and delayed gamma neutron activation analysis. Relative to the former, a prompt gamma spectrometer was built as part of the Neutron Capture Therapy Program to measure the boron content in the blood and tissue of patients and experimental animals. The facility is available to other users. Relative to the latter, the MITR is equipped with five pneumatic tubes that are used for NAA. One offers a thermal flux of 5x1013; the other four offer thermal fluxes of 8x1012. Several of the tubes are automated so that samples can either be ejected to a hot cell within the reactor containment or else transferred via a pneumatic tube to a laboratory in an adjacent building. In addition to the pneumatic tubes, there are four water-cooled facilities in which large numbers of samples can be simultaneously irradiated in a uniform flux. Samples in these facilities are rotated.

One of the more interesting activities pursued in the past year has been on investigation of the possible linkage between mercury and autism. INAA analysis of hair from healthy and autistic children was done and it showed that, unlike healthy children, autistic ones do not excrete mercury. The difference is very striking.

The NRL NAA laboratory has 4 HpGe detector systems with Genie-2000 software. A new computer and new software were installed. Two detectors were rebuilt and installed this year. MIT also participates in the US DOE's Reactor Sharing Program and the bulk of those funds is used to cover irradiation charges for NAA-based research.

The NRL makes its neutron activation analysis (NAA) facilities and expertise available to industry, other universities, private and governmental laboratories, and hospitals. Research and/or service-oriented collaborations were continued with several MIT research laboratories as well as with other educational and research institutions including: Harvard, California Institute of Technology, Tufts University, University of Utah, University of Connecticut, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Within MIT, research support has been provided to several departments. This research support includes analysis of various environmental and biological samples for trace and toxic metals by faculty from several departments including the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Chemical Engineering. In addition, Professor Kenneth C. Czerwinski (Nuclear Engineering Department) and several students use both gamma and neutron irradiation for the study of possible host matrices for use in waste storage.

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Nuclear Medicine

Several state of the art neutron facilities for NCT research that have been developed are in operation at the MITR. The recently constructed epithermal neutron irradiation facility (FCB) is now licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It has an intensity of ~5x109n/cm2 s with low inherent beam contamination which approaches the theoretical optimum. If the FCB is used at maximum intensity, tissue tolerance can be reached in less than 10 minutes. The high beam purity results in a useful treatment depth of ~9 cm, using current capture compounds. Therefore, the FCB is well suited to treating deep-seated cancers. The FCB is currently the only operating US epithermal neutron beam which is suitable for clinical studies. It is also currently the best NCT epithermal neutron beam in the world. A high intensity, ~1x1010n/cm2 s, and low contamination thermal neutron beam is also available at MITR. This facility has its own medical irradiation room separate from the FCB's irradiation room. The thermal neutron facility is well suited for small animal studies and for clinical studies of NCT where tumors are less than ~4 cm deep. There is currently no other comparable facility for thermal neutron irradiations in the USA. The third neutron facility available at MITR is a prompt gamma neutron activation analysis facility. This facility is designed for rapid 10B analyses in small samples of blood and tissue. These analyses are essential for NCT research and for accurate dosimetry in clinical studies. A high sensitivity of ~18 cts/s/gm allows rapid and accurate analyses of samples as small as 0.1 ml with typical 10B concentrations of 10 ppm. An ICP-AES, and ICP-MS are also available at the NRL and are particularly well suited to very small samples, <0.1 ml. A specialized irradiation facility for use in high-resolution track etch autoradiography is also available at MITR. High resolution quantitative track etch autoradiography developed in the Harvard/MIT program (HRQAR) permits the mapping of the microscopic boron concentration in tissue with a spatial resolution of about 2 micrometers. This is an invaluable aid in determining the potential effectiveness of neutron capture compounds.

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Radiation Health Physics

The NRL supports a subdiscipline in the Nuclear Engineering Department (NED), Radiation Health Physics, by providing relevant research opportunities. The NRL also contributes to a specially designed laboratory and demonstration course. This course, 22.09/22.104 Principles of Nuclear Radiation Measurement and Protection, is appropriate for all students in NED. Research topics and support for Health Physics students were provided by NRL projects, especially the BNCT and Dose Reduction projects of Professor Otto K. Harling.

Dr. John A. Bernard, who is certified as a health physicist by the American Board of Health Physics, continued to teach course 22.581 Introduction to Health Physics. This course uses the MIT Research Reactor to provide practical examples of health physics issues.

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In-Core Materials Studies

The NRL has a unique technical capability that involves the use and installation of in-core loops that replicate PWR/BWR conditions to study the behavior of both advanced materials and micro-particles of advanced fuels for Gen IV reactors. With rekindled national interest on the part of DOE and the nuclear industry in next generation nuclear power systems, many using novel materials and advanced forms of fuels, facilities are needed to test material and fuel behavior in a variety of radiation environments. The MITR is arguably the best suited university reactor for carrying out such basic studies because of its relatively high power density (similar to an LWR), the capability to control the chemistry and thermal conditions to reflect prototypic conditions, its easy-access geometric configuration, and space for up to three independent irradiation tests. While similar studies could in principle be carried out at certain national laboratory reactors such as the ATR, the costs would be far greater. The reason is that large national laboratory reactors are optimized for large scale, fully integrated tests and not the smaller scale, faster turnaround basic studies needed at the earlier stages of research. Access to the high flux in the core is also much more difficult in the larger reactors because of pressurization of the core. The MITR is unpressurized and the core is only about 12 feet below the lead reactor lid.

An in-core loop to study the causes of "shadow corrosion" is now being designed and installation is expected late in 2003. This study is under the direction of Professor Ronald Ballinger.

A second in-core loop to evaluate annular core fuel designs is being designed by Professor Mujid S. Kazimi and the staff of the CANES Center. This work is funded through the DOE NERI Program and is expected to be operational in late 2003.

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Reactor Organization

Dr. John A. Bernard is the director of the NRL and also holds the title of director of reactor operations. There are currently 39 individuals employed by the NRL. This is broken down into five groups. These include: 13 senior staff, 9 technical support staff, 4 administrative support staff, 2 technicians, and 11 part-time student operators/trainees. In general, support staff, student employees, and technicians at the NRL have specific responsibilities to either Reactor Administration, Reactor Engineering, or Reactor Operations. Reactor senior staff divide their expertise between Reactor Operations and Reactor Engineering. Although the existing NRL organization of responsibility has been successful in the past, the increased volume of research that will result from the INIE grant will make it necessary to further delineate responsibilities within the Reactor Engineering Group with the objective of ensuring that MIT and outside users of the NRL have the best possible assistance in utilizing the reactor and its irradiation facilities.

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Reactor Engineering

Dr. Bernard continued to teach the subject 22.921 Reactor Dynamics and Control, and to offer review classes on engineering fundamentals for NED students in the radiological sciences. Both activities make use of the reactor for illustrating theoretical concepts.

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Reactor Operations

The reactor operations group is at present the strongest that it has been in the history of the MITR-II. This is due to the strong leadership provided by the reactor superintendent, Edward S. Lau. The group consists of both full-time employees (mostly ex-Navy nuclear qualified personnel) and part-time MIT students. All members of the group are licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and most hold a senior reactor operator license. At present, there are 26 licensed individuals. The breakdown is 4 senior individuals (director/DRO, superintendent, reactor engineer, utilization engineer), twelve other full-time people, six part-time student operator trainees, and four part-time student operators. All, including the management team, perform reactor shift duties to support the 24 hours/day, 7 days/week operating schedule. Fifty-five percent of the Operations Group is women and minorities.

In addition to the operators, there are two full-time technicians for reactor mechanical maintenance.

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Reactor Student Operators

The MITR has traditionally hired several undergraduates per year, usually at the end of their freshmen year. The NRL is currently training six students to become reactor operators. During this reporting period nine students have been in the training program. Three of these students have already obtained their reactor operator license. The training program, directed by Frank Warmsley, is rigorous and covers reactor dynamics, radiation detection, radiation safety, and reactor systems. The level of instruction is comparable to that offered in undergraduate courses that cover these same topics. In addition, students are taught how to operate the MITR. Upon completion of the training program, a two-day examination is administered by the US NRC (one day written, one day oral). Successful candidates receive a reactor operator license and are employed during the semester at the MITR. After the students gain experience, most are offered the opportunity to participate in a second training program that leads to a senior reactor operator license (SRO). Last year two student operators received their SRO. This training program is an excellent educational opportunity because it combines theoretical study with actual work experience in the MIT tradition of graduating students who know both how to design and build systems. In addition, the students that receive the SRO license obtain management experience because they are employed as shift supervisors. Students who have completed this training program regularly state that it was one of the high points of their MIT experience.

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Reactor Radiation Protection

Radiation protection coverage is provided by a separate group outside the NRL organization under the leadership of Frederick F. McWilliams. Mr. McWilliams reports to Environmental Health and Safety (EHS). There are three technical people in this group.

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MITR Relicensing and Redesign

The relicensing of the MITR with a concomitant upgrade in power is in progress. It was previously identified that the MITR could operate at a maximum power of 6–7 MW with the existing heat removal equipment. A decision was subsequently made to submit the licensing documents for a power increase from 5 MW to 6 MW. On 8 July 1999, a formal application was submitted to the US NRC to relicense the reactor for an additional twenty years and to upgrade the power level to 6 MW. The relicensing package included a complete rewrite of the Safety Analysis Report and the Technical Specifications. The NRC has authorized the continued operation of the MITR pending its review of the application. That process remains ongoing. In conjunction with the relicensing effort, reactor systems are being upgraded.

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Reactor Irradiations for Groups Outside MIT

A number of reactor irradiations and services were performed for research groups outside MIT. Most of these represent continuations of previous research. Examples include Dr. Alan P. Fleer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to determine natural actinides and plutonium in marine sediments; Drs. Michael Cisneros and Moses Attrep of the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the calibration of ultra-sensitive neutron monitoring devices by thermal neutron fission of uranium foils; and isotope production for cardiovascular research by both Best Industries, Inc. (Springfield, VA) and Implant Sciences (Wakefield, MA).

Whereas most of the outside users pay for irradiation services at the reactor, educational institutions needing such services for their own academic or research purposes are assisted in this regard by the DOE through its "Reactor Sharing Program." A grant to MIT NRL reimburses us for the costs of providing irradiation services and facilities to other not-for-profit institutions (including teaching hospitals and middle and high schools). Under this program, 500 students and 50 faculty and staff from over 30 other educational institutions benefited from visits to and use of the MITR during the past year.

Research utilization of the MITR by other institutions was continued under the Reactor Sharing Program during the past year.

For education of the general public and students at all levels in local and other New England schools, the reactor staff provides lectures and tours periodically throughout the year.

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Major Reactor Services

The MITR produces about $1.2 million worth of neutron transmutation doped (NTD) silicon per year. This is commercial income and the funds are used to offset operating costs. The market for NTD silicon remains strong despite improvements in the chemical production of the material, and the MIT program continued for a successful ninth year. Approximately 10 metric tons of Si crystals were accurately irradiated in shielded, automated irradiation facilities at the MITR. This project is under the technical direction of Professor Otto K. Harling.

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Affirmative Action

The NRL supports the affirmative action goals of MIT. Of a staff of 39 there are currently five engineering and management positions held by minorities and women. The NRL participated in the US DOE's program for minority training in reactor operations, and one of our current senior reactor operators is a graduate of this program.

MIT Research Reactor

The MIT Reactor completed its 44th year of operation, its 28th since the 1974–75 shutdown for upgrading and overhaul. The reactor operated continuously (seven days per week) to support major experiments. On average, the MIT reactor was operated 112 hours per week at its design power level of 5 MW. Energy output for the MITR-II, as the upgraded reactor is now called, totaled 573,000 megawatt-hours as of June 30, 2003. The MITR-I generated 250,445 megawatt-hours in the 16 years from 1958 to 1974.

The senior reactor staff continued to be active in the nuclear field. Dr. Bernard remained active in the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and Dr. Lin-Wen Hu chaired of the Isotopes and Radiation Division of ANS. Her term began in June 2002.

To summarize briefly the reactor was well utilized during the year, although still more experiments and irradiations can be accommodated because of the number and versatility of the many experimental facilities. The number of specimen irradiations was 438. There were 43 irradiations in the medical rooms, many in support of the neutron capture therapy program for the treatment of brain cancer and subcutaneous melanoma. Theses and publications on research supported by the reactor are running at about 5 and 20 per year, respectively. Approximately 1450 people toured the MIT Research Reactor from July 1, 2002 through June 30, 2003.

John A. Bernard

More information on the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory can be found on the web at


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