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 missions. This reactor, which is designated as the MITR, 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/cm2s. 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.

The past year has been an extremely active one as well as a very productive one 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 analysis. 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: an upgrade to the neutron chopper that is used primarily by the Junior Physics Laboratory for student experiments; acquisition from the Brookhaven National Laboratory of a hot cave (small hot cell) specifically for creating an in-core sample extraction system (ICSES); and acquisition of a special cask capable of withdrawing in-core samples and transferring them to the hot cave. Also, the thermal beam located in the reactor's basement was reconstituted.

In order to support the future of the MITR and university research reactors in general, John A. Bernard, Director of the NRL, worked diligently with members of the MIT Administration, the MIT Nuclear Engineering Department, the university research reactor community, and the US DOE. As a result of these actions and a subsequent recommendation by the Nuclear Engineering Research Advisory Committee (NERAC), the Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education (INIE) Program was established to provide qualified universities and reactor facilities with funds to improve instrumentation; to maintain highly qualified research reactor staff; to establish programs that fully integrate the use of university research reactors with nuclear engineering education programs; and to establish internal and external user programs. In response to this initiative, a major proposal was prepared by John Bernard in coordination with MIT's vice president of research Alice P. Gast, Professor Jeffrey P. Freidberg and other faculty from MIT's Nuclear Engineering Department, as well as others from departments across campus. This proposal was submitted in March 2002 and the results of the awards were recently announced. The NRL proposal was one of four chosen out of the 13 that were submitted to be funded under the INIE Program. This means that over the next five years, the NRL should receive over $9 million in DOE INIE funds. The 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. The INIE funds offer the opportunity for the MIT-RINSC collaboration to carry out frontier research and educational training in a number of areas vital to the well being of the nation.

Neutron capture therapy for cancer research, directed by Professor Otto K. Harling, continued for the 15th year with strong support from federal agencies. In the last year, significant progress was made in the development of this cellular tumor targeting therapy. The new fission converter based epithermal neutron irradiation facility (FCB) at the MIT Reactor was fully characterized and otherwise readied for clinical studies. The dosimetric characterizations verified that the beam from this facility combines the highest intensity of any such facility in the world with near optimum beam purity. During the year all necessary approvals were finalized for the initiation of clinical trials. These trials will be carried out under the medical direction of Dr. Paul M. Busse from the Harvard Medical School affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Two separate clinical trials are now open for subject accrual. One trial is for intracranial gliobastoma multiforme and metastatic melanoma, and the second trial is for metastatic melanoma on the peripheries. Both trials are funded and approved by the National Cancer Institute. The US Department of Energy provides funding for the staff and infrastructure needed to support these clinical trials and other neutron capture therapy research centered at the MIT Reactor.

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.

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

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 Table 1 for the last five years. However, after the 9/11 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 the NRL, with the assistance from the MIT News Office and the MIT Administration, had to take on the additional task of educating various regional and local government officials, 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. A lecture on radiation detection was also offered to local fire department HAZMAT personnel. Equipment upgrades were also made.

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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.

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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.

The NRL NAA laboratory has 4 Hp(GeLi) detector systems with Genie-2000 software. A new computer and new software have been approved for purchase. Two detectors were rebuilt and installed this year and repair and upgrade for two additional detectors has also been approved. MIT also participates in the US Department of Energy'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. Table 2 shows some of the NAA projects that were either completed this year or are ongoing.

Table 1. MITR Inspection Record 1996–2001

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.
10/28/01 Inspection on RRPO/Security No deficiencies.
09/04/01 Licensing Exams 3 RO + 2 SRO, all passed.
1) RRPO is Reactor Radiation Protection Office.
2) QA is quality assurance.
3) SAR is Safety Analysis Report.
4) SNM is special nuclear material.


Table 2. Ongoing Research Using NAA at the MITR


NAA Activity

Beth Israel/Deaconess Medical Center
Analyses of small animal and tissue cultures as well as biopsies from patients for research on neutron capture therapy (Dr. Robert G. Zamenhof, and Dr. Paul M. Busse)
Boston College  
Geochemical analysis of rock and soil samples to determine the abundance of a suite of trace elements such as Co, Cr, Sc, Rb, Ss, Ta, Hf, Th, U and the Rare Earth Elements as natural tracers of a variety of different geological processes in igneous and metamorphic geochemistry and soil studies. (Professors Hepburn and Hon)
California Institute of Technology,   and   University of Alabama
Irradiation of ashed liquid scintillator materials to study trace amount of impurities for neutrino research. Sensitivity of the trace elements (U-235/Th-232/K-40) in the material can be analyzed down to 10-14 g/gram.
Children's Hospital  
Cu-64 is prepared by neutron irradiation of natural-abundance copper metal as a means to evaluate new copper complexes for testing as possible PET imaging agents for multi-drug resistance in cancer (Alan P. Packard, Ph.D.)
Fairfield University  
Neutron activation analysis of trace elements in subsurface water supplies. (Professor Jack Beal)
Harvard University  
Irradiation of tin samples enriched with Sn-112 which will serve as a source of monoenergetic conversion electrons for research conducted by Professor Boris G. Yerozolimski/High Energy Physics Laboratory.
Massachusetts General Hospital  
NAA Measurements of Na and Gadolinium contents in calf nasal cartilage to investigate diffusion of various gadolinium chelate MRI contrast agents. (Dr. Xudong Huang)
In vivo boron quantification by NAA for use in BNCT Synovectomy used for arthritis research (Professor Jacquelyn C. Yanch (NED))
Analysis of water and sediments from Boston area as a student lab and analysis of plate tectonics through the origins of lavas. (Professor Frederick Frey (EAPS))
Evaluation of actinide element concentration in environmental and industrial samples. (Professor Kenneth R. Czerwinski (NED))
NAA analysis of brain tissue to investigate a possible link between mercury and autism. (Dr. John Muchusak, MIT)
Tufts University,   and   MIT
Use of neutron activation analysis for bromine measurements was provided to evaluate intra/extra-cellular water as an indicator of overall human health. (Professor Joseph Kehayias (Tufts) and Senior Research Scientist Richard Lanza. (MIT NED) ).
UMass-Lowell Lowell, MA
Irradiation of NaOH for contamination and control exercise. (Professor Clayton French)   Use of rare elements as environmental tracers for sewage and other discharges to aquatic systems. (David K. Ryan, Ph.D.)
University of Utah  
Irradiation of coal ash samples for research. (Professor JoAnn Lighty and Sheree Swenson)
Washington University  
Analysis of scandium particles to study the flow pattern in high pressure slurry bubble column reactor and gas-solid riser. (Professor Muthanna Al-Dahhan)
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute  
Analysis of deep sea sediments and sea water and marine particulate matter for Pa-231. Production of Pa-233 using neutron irradiation of Th-232 to use as a tracer for isotope dilution ICP-MS. (Professor Alan Fleer)

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.

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-sec 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/μgm 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 two 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 2002. 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 early 2003.

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Reactor Organization

Dr. John A. Bernard is the Director of the NRL and also holds the title of Director or Reactor Operations. There are currently 39 individuals employed by the NRL. This is broken down into five groups. These include: 13 senior staff, nine technical support staff, four administrative support staff, two 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 course 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. The program on the digital control of nuclear reactors continued with thesis activity in the area of automated diagnostics. One student completed a PhD in this area during the past year. Reactor engineering staff include: Dr. Lin-Wen Hu, Mr. Thomas Newton, Dr. Gordon Kohse, and Mr. Yakov Ostrovsky.

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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, Mr. 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 four 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, seven 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 which is directed by Mr. 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 MIT 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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (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 MIT 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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (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. Upgrades to electrical distribution systems were initiated in 2000 and are continuing.

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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 B. Packard of Boston Children's Hospital for the evaluation of copper and gold for arthritis treatments; Dr. Alan P. Fleer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to determine natural actinides and plutonium in marine sediments; Dr. Rebecca Chamberlain 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, Virginia) and Implant Sciences (Wakefield, Massachusetts).

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 under the Reactor Sharing Program during the past year has included: use by Professors J. Christopher Hepburn and Rudolph Hon of Boston College to activate geological specimens and standards for the neutron activation analysis of rare earth and other trace elements in studies of the geological development of the northeastern United States; irradiation of coal ash samples for research being conducted by Professor JoAnne Lighty at the University of Utah; gamma irradiation of plant seeds for several area high school students participating in science fair projects; measurements of boron concentration and work on high resolution track etch autoradiography for Professor Robert Zamenhof of Beth Israel/Deaconess Medical Center; participation in several special high school student projects;) neutron activation analysis of subsurface water supplies by Professor Jack Beal of Fairfield University; neutron time of flight and Bragg angle measurements by Professor Martin Posner's group of the University of Massachusetts; NaOH irradiation for Professor Clayton French of UMass-Lowell; and use of neutron activation analysis for bromine measurements by Professor Joseph Kehayias (Tufts) and Senior Research Scientist Richard Lanza (MIT NED) to evaluate intra/extra-cellular water as an indicator of overall human health.

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 the 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.

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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 122 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 544,000 megawatt-hours as of June 30, 2002. The MITR-I generated 250,445 megawatt-hours in the sixteen 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 was elected Chair 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 322. There were 57 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 five and 20 per year, respectively. Approximately 1300 people toured the MIT Research Reactor from July 1, 2001 through June 30, 2002.

John A. Bernard


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