SLOWPOKE nuclear reactor shuts down after 37 years

A long-term fixture in the Dent-Pharm building is being removed, as the SLOWPOKE reactor on the third floor is in the process of being decommissioned.

Beginning in 1978, the SLOWPOKE (Safe LOW-POwer Kritical Experiment) reactor produced neutrons for radionuclide production, neuron activation analysis (NAA), teaching, and research. Primarily, the reactor was used to analyze geological findings, as well as mineral analysis processes.

According to University of Alberta Vice-President (Research) Lorne Babiuk, a combination of increased operating costs, reduced power, and redundancy led to the decision made in 2014 to begin the decommissioning process.

“Eventually, it would have had to be decommissioned because of reduced capacity due to radioactive decay,” Babiuk said.

“So though it could have still functioned for a number of years, it’s not preventing us from doing quality research. We just have other ways of doing it now.”

Drawing approximately the same amount of energy it takes to heat the average house, Babiuk said the reactor’s presence on campus was never a concern for the university.

“It’s extremely safe,” Babiuk said. “It’s in a fully shielded room in Dent-Pharm. If anything were to happen, it was designed to shut itself down.”

Though the amount of fuel required for such a reactor is extremely small, Babiuk said that the disposal will be handled by the Canadian Nuclear Commission. The same precautions will be taken with the SLOWPOKE reactor’s core as with other nuclear fuels.

“We are part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative,” Babiuk said.

“So we send it to the U.S. for storage and processing, where it is properly disposed of approved by international standards.”

Though he did not entirely rule out the possibility of future nuclear infrastructure on campus, Babiuk said there are no plans to make a similar installation.

“That’s passe,” Babiuk said.“We’ve moved on and there is no pressing need that would make us install a new one.”

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