A small-scale nuclear reactor at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was shut down last week after elevated radiation levels leaked from it.
The incident happened at around 9:15 AM EST on February 3, at NIST's Center for Neutron Research in Gaithsburg, Maryland. In a statement, the lab explained that the leak took place in the confinement building during a restart of the research reactor after its maintenance period.
Immediately after the alarm went off, a shutdown process of the reactor was initiated, and workers carried out the correct procedures. The reactor remains shut down in safety mode until the cause of the leak is uncovered and corrected.
We've just released a statement on today's alert at the NIST Center for Neutron Research on our Gaithersburg, Md., campus. Health & safety of our staff and community is our top priority. No indications of elevated radiation levels outside the building. https://t.co/scVBmGGcEh— National Institute of Standards and Technology (@NIST) February 3, 2021
Several members of staff were exposed to the elevated doses, and immediately underwent decontamination and screening — they were cleared to return home that night. No exposure leaked outside of the confinement building, so nearby residents are safe, as well as NIST workers outside of the building.
Difference between regular nuclear power reactors and NIST's research reactor
In a follow-up statement a couple of days later, NIST officials explain how different a leak from the NIST research reactor is from a traditional nuclear power reactor. It's much smaller in size, and power, and it vastly differs in temperature, pressure, design, and purpose.
At full power, NIST's research reactor produces 20 megawatts of thermal power, whereas a regular nuclear power reactor produces 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts of thermal power. On top of that, NIST's reactor is smaller, simpler, and operates at atmospheric pressure, and with a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celcius), which is lower than most home water heaters.
All in all, the risk facility in such a type of reactor is minimal. Yet despite its small size, such a reactor still provides vasts amounts of research benefits. For instance, it helps improve the research on pharmaceuticals, high-tech alloys, data storage, and more.
NIST's reactor has been in operation for over 50 years, and has helped over 2,500 U.S.-based researchers every year.