UC Irvine’s small research nuclear reactor, operated safely for decades thanks to careful engineering, remains central to a variety of projects. Several touch on aspects of nuclear energy that echo both its promise and potential difficulties in nuclear power plants across the nation, and the world, including safety and security issues.
The reactor is used to investigate details of spent nuclear fuel and medical use of radioisotopes, as well as playing a role in efforts to sharpen measurements of radioactive decay. Nailing down precisely the radiation emission rates of gamma rays or electrons – at the moment known with less precision than fundamental constants like the speed of light – could prove immensely valuable to a new generation of investigators using nuclear materials. Some are exploring new ways to generate nuclear power, a matter of contention between those who see it as the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and those who see it as an “unacceptable risk.”
New reactor designs, including one possible version using molten salt, could vastly reduce generation of nuclear waste, cut substantially the risk of accident or exposure, and greatly increase power output.
Another research project seeks to better characterize how quickly the radioactive element plutonium, leaked from the decommissioned Hanford nuclear site, migrates through soil.