What It’s Like to
Operate a Nuclear Reactor

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In Short: Somewhat Boring.

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While most people know of nuclear power plants that generate electricity, many people do not realize that there are other types of nuclear reactors. One of the other types is a research reactor. I operate a research reactor at a large university.

Where a nuclear power plant is designed to maximize the generation of heat to boil water to make steam to turn a turbine to crank a generator to make electricity, a research reactor is typically designed to maximize the production of neutrons — a subatomic particle which has a neutral charge, and a mass slightly greater than that of a proton.

Neutrons are used for various nuclear analytical processes, industrial and medical isotope production, and basic nuclear research. As a result, there are very few similarities between a power reactor and research reactor other than the fuel, uranium-235.

Reactor operators complete specialized training that takes about six months — and pass a medical exam to determine that you are physically and mentally fit to perform the duties of a reactor operator. There are also written and practical exams administered by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Only then is a license granted to operate the reactor.

I hold a Nuclear Plant Reactor Operator License. Some colleagues hold a Nuclear Plant Senior Reactor Operator License, which requires at least a year of experience, additional training, and a higher level exam.

Photo: Tracy Tipping.

The reactor’s primary missions are education and research. However, we have a unique facility that also performs service work — specialized nuclear work for clients all over the world.

Education includes teaching nuclear engineering students about reactors, and providing specialized nuclear training for other groups such as first responders.

Research includes development of more efficient ways to produce nuclear medicine products used in cancer treatment, as well as cutting-edge advances in the field of nuclear forensics, which is used to detect and track nuclear material to monitor covert nuclear development to ensure compliance with treaties, and global nuclear security.

Service work includes isotope production, trace element analysis, testing how various materials are damaged by radiation, and a variety of other jobs.

Starting It Up

Regardless of the task, the operation of the reactor is basically the same. Before starting up the reactor, all the systems (such as control and safety systems) are checked to confirm they are performing correctly — similar to the checklist that pilots go through before they head down the runway.

Once the startup checks are complete and all systems are go, the reactor is started up to a low power to allow some of the reactor operating parameters to be measured to confirm that everything is performing within allowable limits. Once this low-power check is complete, the reactor power is increased to the level needed for the task at hand.

To increase the reactor power, the control rods are brought up from the reactor core. To reduce the reactor power, the control rods are inserted down into the core. That allows one of the numerous safety systems: gravity can rapidly drop the control rods into the core should that be necessary.

Once at the desired power the control system is switched to “AUTO” and the reactor power is maintained automatically.

So what is it like to operate a nuclear reactor? You push buttons for a few minutes, and then spend hours periodically looking at numbers (cooling water flow and temperature, fuel temperature, etc.) on a computer monitor to make sure the reactor systems continue to function appropriately.

Tracy Tipping is a simple-minded farm boy from Texas turned professional science geek.

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7 thoughts on “Operate a Nuclear Reactor”

  1. When I was in uni (about 40 years ago), I spent a summer workterm at the nuclear research facility in Pinawa, Manitoba. It was pretty much as described here. I didn’t work with the reactor but wrote computer programs for statistical analysis. The reactor was mostly underground and to get to my desk I had to walk across the reactor floor. On the way out there were sensors that you stepped on to check if you picked up an alpha particle — not something you want to spread around. If the sensor beeped there was a simple decontamination process: swipe your feet on a string mop leaning against the wall next to the sensor. A nasty, dirty old string mop that everyone swiped their feet on. And you hoped you could dislodge your particle without picking up someone else’s!

  2. I worked at the government facility in Aiken SC. I was a Senior Reactor Operator on a production reactor. These are different from power reactors and research reactors in that we made a product.

    The product we made was a fissionable product used in the nations weapon systems. As with most all reactors starting up was like watching grass grow. It was a slow very controlled process watched closely by both humans and computers. We had to have special classes that lasted one year and then we had to maintain certification every year. This certification was in two parts one was a written test and the other was a verble walk through to include all of the reactor systems. these took over two days to complete. I really enjoyed my time as an operator, I went on to be an instructor in our reactor simulator before I retired.

    • Research reactor operators must maintain certification as well. We must operate the reactor a minimum number of hours per calendar quarter, participate in continuing education and pass an operational exam annually, pass a comprehensive written exam and medical evaluation every two years and renew our license with the NRC every six years.

  3. I love these WILT articles … like getting a brief chat with someone who does something totally different to your own “run of the mill” types of jobs.

    • While I am a licensed reactor operator, it is not my primary job. So I don’t sit at the console all day every day. I’m a professional science geek that worked his way up into laboratory management. So I get to do lots of different things each day (which is good since I have a short attention span).


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