Inside MIT’s nuclear reactor laboratory

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MIT’s research reactor was built in the 1950s, and its purpose has shifted over the decades. At various points, it’s been used to study everything from nuclear physics to medical therapies, alongside its consistent use for teaching the next generation of nuclear scientists. 

But I was most excited to hear about an energy-focused project, which is aimed at bringing novel reactor technology to reality. 

While virtually all commercial nuclear reactors today are cooled using water, a growing number of startups are looking to molten salt as an alternative. MIT’s nuclear reactor lab is working on a new research space that could help illuminate how well alternative technologies withstand the intense conditions inside a nuclear reactor. 

So for the newsletter this week, come along on my tour of MIT’s nuclear reactor lab. On the way, we can get into what all the buzz is all about with molten-salt reactors. 

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The first stop on my tour was the front desk, where I and each member of my group picked up a personal dosimeter to track any potential radiation exposure. We then handed over our bags and phones and got stern warnings not to touch anything or wander out of our tour guide’s sight. 

Finally, we filed through a set of reinforced metal doors and into the lab. We passed rows of yellow lab coats as David Carpenter, the head of reactor experiments and our tour guide, walked us through some history and basic facts.  

This is the second-largest university research reactor running in the US today, producing about six megawatts of thermal power. Commercial reactors tend to have capacities hundreds of times greater than that—around 3,000 megawatts (or three gigawatts) of thermal power. 

(Speedy nuclear basics: nuclear reactors are powered by fission reactions, where uranium atoms break apart. These reactions produce neutrons, which are a type of ionizing radiation, as well as heat that can be harnessed and transformed into electricity.)

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