MIT nuclear reactor trains students in safe management of complex systems

3091 reactor
Senior Reactor Operator Agata E. Wisniowska ’11 performs a startup in the reactor’s control room. The reactor, opened in 1956 and rebuilt in 1974, is operated in part by undergraduate students.
Edward Lau

Brian K. Baum ’10 calls his job “essentially glorified babysitting,” but he’s not watching over his neighbor’s kids. Instead, he is one of a small group of undergraduates who operates MIT’s nuclear reactor.

This group of students work in addition to the ten full-time employees at the reactor. They serve as operators and shift supervisors, performing everything from daily monitoring of the reactor’s operations to running drills of possible problems.


The MIT reactor first opened in 1956 and was rebuilt in 1974 using parts engineered at MIT. “They developed it, they created it, they put it in,” said Ekaterina D. Paramonova ’13, a trainee at the reactor. “A lot of the people who have worked here for a long time have an intimate relationship with the reactor… It’s like our little cottage.”

The reactor has been used primarily for research throughout its existence. Experimental setups surround the reactor vessel. They range from systems used by juniors in the physics department, to facilities for medical irradiation, currently unused.

But earlier in its history, physicians working at the reactor were investigating the use of neutron beams as therapies for inoperable brain tumors. And though the medical facilities are no longer in use, the setup remains. In two rooms, stretchers are placed to position patient’s heads in line with the neutron beams. To allow the physician to observe the experiment, there is a thick slab of lead doped glass separating the experimenter and the procedure room.

Now, scientists at the reactor are investigating neutron doping of silicon. Blocks of silicon are pushed through the reactor body, bombarding them with neutrons. This creates lower resistivity in the silicon, making it better suited for uses in electronic devices.

Reactor Trainees

Course XXII is the most common major for students at the reactor, though it is not exclusive. Baum is Course III, saying he decided to “split the difference” when he was undecided about majors and declared Course III while working at the reactor. Other students have been Courses IV, IX, X, XVI, and XVIII.

All four of the current reactor trainees are Course XXII. Sarah H. Don ’13 first came to be interested in nuclear engineering mostly by coincidence. Don, who is an international student from Australia, had a debate in her ninth grade class about nuclear power. The students in her class split up into different roles, such as politician or a townsperson. “Oh, I’ll be the scientist!” Don said. As she started the research for her project, she found that there are no commercial nuclear power plants in Australia.

“In Australia, everyone’s really scared of nuclear power,” said Don. As she learned more about nuclear power, she began to see it as a valuable energy source, but one that Australia condemns. The anti-nuclear sentiment is so strong that Don says “some of my friendships [from home] have changed” since she has begun working at the reactor.

Dominic R. Solis ’12 was always interested in the atom bomb, which fed his interest in nuclear engineering at large. For Paramenova, it was a family tradition: “My grandfather was a nuclear engineer and now my dad’s a nuclear engineer.” Her interest was almost expected.

Judy N. Rodriguez ’13 came to nuclear engineering less directly. Rodriguez said she “didn’t really know about the department until I got to MIT…It just sort of grew on me.” Rodriguez passed by a bulletin board in building 24 displaying information about the nuclear engineering department at MIT daily on her way to class. Repeatedly seeing the bulletin board piqued her interest in the department.

But her path to the job at the nuclear reactor was even more roundabout. Rodriguez was attending a talk on Mexican solidarity, where she found herself to be the only undergraduate. After the talk, Rodriguez struck up a conversation with a graduate student who just happened to work at the nuclear reactor. While discussing the reactor, Rodriguez learned that undergraduates could apply to be operators.

Working at the nuclear reactor goes beyond simply an undergraduate commitment. It comes with a high degree of job security, as being a trained operator is extremely attractive to other facilities. This will become more evident as the nuclear industry grows, said Solis. “With the field growing, more plants are going to be built…it’s good to have people that are experienced.”

Baum, who has gotten a job offer from the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, says the experience offered by an operator job is unparalleled. “It’s a chance to do technician work. …you get an actual grasp of how industrial systems work.”

Public Concern

Recently, concern has been raised in the press over MIT’s use of highly enriched uranium fuel, the same material that is used to produce nuclear bombs. The criticism is rooted in a combination of concerns over security and public relations. The United Sates is attempting to convince other countries to switch to a lower enrichment of uranium in civilian reactors to prevent the spread of nuclear reactors. The presence of the highly enriched uranium in the MIT reactor and other civilian reactors is seen as an obstacle in negotiations.

MIT’s reactor had been scheduled to undergo a fuel switch by 2014, but that date has been pushed back, primarily because of concerns over loss of performance. “You can’t just change the fuel…you need a specific enrichment to reach criticality to run the reactor,” Don said, describing how the reactor was designed to work with a specific enrichment of fuel. Some critics of the reactor suggest performance might need to be sacrificed in order to expedite the fuel switch, rather than waiting to find a suitable substitute.

Typically, research reactors do not have enough fuel to produce a nuclear bomb, which often results in relatively lower security. However, there is concern that thefts from multiple reactors could be combined to produce an adequate amount of fuel.

Despite public concern, the staff of the MIT nuclear reactor stands firmly by the safety and security of their facility. In a statement, the reactor’s director, David E. Moncton, said, “The reactor’s 50-year history of operations without any major incident is testimony to our high regard for safety and security, and the high level of commitment from our staff and students.”

“If MIT was attacked, I would want to be inside… [It’s the] safest place in Cambridge” Bao H. Truong G, a reactor operator, said of the reactor, expressing a common sentiment among the reactor operators.

According to operators, security extends down to fuel, which they describe as self-protecting. “If people try and steal the elements, they’ll die in the process because of radiation,” Rodriguez said. Moving the fuel without extensive safety and containment measures would result in fatal dosage.

The operators attribute the concerns about the reactor to public misunderstanding. They say that misinformation permeates discussion about the reactor, ranging from innocuous things at the MIT level — such as the location of the reactor — to much larger concerns about the safety of nuclear engineering.

“The government doesn’t understand nuclear engineering…they don’t understand that all the safety systems in place prevent [accidents] from happening,” said Paramonova, who wants to pursue a career in nuclear political policy.

Because of this apparent level of misinformation about MIT’s reactor and nuclear power in general, one of the goals of the group that manages the nuclear reactor is to educate the community at large. Public tours are available, with middle and high schools often coming on class trips. “I wish I could educate the world, one step at a time,” Don said.

Though they are confident in the reactor’s safety, the operators are extremely aware of the responsibility that comes with their position. “It’s overwhelming sometimes…obviously it’s a big responsibility and I think about that often,” Don said, echoing the sentiments of other undergraduates.

“It’s the reason we have yearlong training,” Rodriguez said. Their training intends to teach them all the finest details of how the reactor works, so if anything were to go wrong, the operators could be well prepared.

Training Process

In order to keep the reactor running smoothly and safely, the training process for student operators is lengthy and thorough. Initial operator training is a yearlong process marked primarily by memorization. The trainee must learn all the ins and outs of the reactor, from the major to the seemingly mundane. “We know everything about the reactor there is to know,” Don said.

The training room has binders upon binders of information that must be committed to memory by trainees. Some of the binders are decades old and include everything from procedures employed when running the reactor to diagrams showing every valve in the reactor. Baum calls this first year of training the “hardest class you’re going to have here.”

Though everything is memorized in the first year, written directions are always used when operating the reactor. Bookshelves in the control room contain even more binders, documenting all possible procedures. The purpose of this training is to not commit just procedures to memory, but also the reasoning behind them. When the student operators know exactly how the reactor is functioning, they can best adjust to its needs.

After the first year, it gets easier. As operators, a lot of the job is simply waiting. Students work in four hour shifts, divided between time in the control room and working at other locations around the reactor. Often, the job is a waiting game. “You get a chance to be on the clock while doing homework,” Baum says.

Student operators often work the night shifts at the reactor. Baum, who often worked overnight shifts on weekends, said the biggest challenge was adjusting sleep to deal with working through the night. “You have to worry about scheduling your sleep here, but MIT students do that anyway.”

Students can move beyond operators to become shift supervisors, adding an additional level of responsibility. But at any level, there is redundancy of responsibility — there is never a single person in the reactor in charge of everything. Still, the move from operator to supervisor is a significant jump — “you’re the final call,” Baum said.

It is not a job that is taken lightly by any of the operators. With all, however, there is a clear dedication to their job and the field at large, even with the challenges they are taking on. “We know what we’re getting into”, said Paramonova.