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Reactor decommissioning continues, to be completed in about 3 years

By Julie Peterson
Office of the Vice President of Communications

A process to decommission the University’s Ford Nuclear Reactor, announced by the University in Nov. 2000, is expected to be complete in approximately three years. Fawwaz Ulaby, vice president for research, says the reactor likely will continue to operate until next summer while plans for the decommissioning are being prepared.

The Ford Nuclear Reactor, located on U-M’s North Campus, originally was constructed in 1955 with a gift from the Ford Motor Co. It is used for research and educational purposes, supporting a range of experiments that require materials to be irradiated.

Over the past few years, however, the proportion of use by U-M researchers has declined to between 15 and 25 percent of the total available reactor hours. Researchers from the federal government and industry now use it the bulk of the time. The University decided to close the reactor because it can no longer afford to subsidize the cost of research by outside entities.

“Federal and industry users do not provide us with adequate financial support for their use of the reactor,” Ulaby says. “We have applied for federal programs that help support university-based research reactors, but we have not been selected for additional funding. Therefore we are continuing with our plans for decommissioning.”

In addition to the ongoing operating costs, he notes, the building that houses the reactor would need more than $10 million in renovations, should the reactor continue operating over the long term.

The decommissioning process, which is done in close coordination with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), involves several steps, including a site assessment; formal application to the NRC for decommissioning; removal of the radioactive, low-grade, low-enriched fuel material; and the final process of shutting down the facility. Ulaby estimates it will take about three years to complete all the necessary steps.

The reactor probably will be available for research projects through July 2003, Ulaby says. However, the exact period of operation will be determined by a number of factors, including ability to maintain the necessary staffing, length of time needed to complete the site assessment and receipt of necessary NRC approvals.

About 20 U-M researchers currently use the reactor for their research projects. Those researchers will be assisted in switching to other research methods or identifying other facilities that can perform the needed functions.

Despite the reactor’s decommissioning, the University will continue with a related project, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, Ulaby notes. The Phoenix Project was founded in 1948 as a World War II memorial. It supports the peaceful applications of nuclear science through basic and applied research, training of students, and public outreach and education.


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