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Kodak's Nuclear Reactor Explained

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This week, the Internet has been buzzing with news that Kodak had a nuclear facility housed in a basement at its Rochester, NY industrial park for over thirty years. Until 2007, Kodak used the reactor to check for impurities in samples, but the reactor wasn't widely known until the local Democrat and Chronicle newspaper ran an article late last week. Many have questioned why the company known for its photography products would need a nuclear device, and some alarmist articles have surfaced.

Gizmodo, for instance, began their article with extreme hyperbole while noting Kodak's recent bankruptcy:

"Kodak may be going under, but apparently they could have started their own nuclear war if they wanted, just six years ago."

Actually, Kodak didn't even have enough nuclear fuel to develop a single warhead. Refrigerator-sized nuclear reactors like the one found in Kodak's basement have key differences with nuclear reactors found at power plants, and Kodak certainly couldn't have ignited World War III alone. In fact, these research reactors can be found on several university campuses, and they are operated under strict guidelines without any nefarious intentions.

Researchers working at Kodak wanted to detect very small impurities in chemicals and impurities, and Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) proved to be one of the best techniques to find these impurities. During NAA, samples are bombarded with neutrons, and elemental isotopes from the sample will absorb a small fraction of these neutrons.

Many of these stable elemental isotopes will become radioactive after gaining a new neutron; consequently, they will emit gamma rays. With the right equipment, researchers can measure the precise energy levels of this radiation and narrow down which elements are in the sample.

"For some elements, this is an exquisitely sensitive test," said Ken Shultis, a nuclear engineer at Kansas State University who works on the university's nuclear research reactor. "To do this [test], you need a source of neutrons."

For Kodak, that source was an isotope of Californium, a radioactive element first synthesized in 1950 with a cyclotron at the University of California Berkeley. Californium-252, the element's most common isotope, was initially used at Kodak as a neutron source by itself.

"Californium-252 is a poor man's reactor," said Shultis.

While a sample of this isotope will shed neutrons by itself, Kodak wanted more neutrons to increase the sensitivity of their analyses. That's where a small nuclear facility could help. The researchers could either collect a larger sample of Californium or use uranium plates to multiply the neutron flow from the source they already had. They opted for the uranium route.

With 3.5 pounds of uranium on-site, the reactor had far less than the roughly 100 pounds needed to develop a weapon. Strict security precautions were still taken, nonetheless.

But these types of reactors don't pose the same safety risks as bigger nuclear reactors at power plants. Power plants produce much more fission products, and they require much more extensive cooling systems, according to Shultis.

"It's inherently much safer. There's no chance of a meltdown in our research reactors," Shultis said.

Radioactive materials used at these research reactors still pose potential risks, according to Shultis. Consequently, researchers take great care when dealing with their samples. If samples become too radioactive, for instance, they can be left in the reactor pool until they decay enough to be safe.

Reactors like the one at Kansas State University and the decommissioned reactor at Kodak must meet strict guidelines determined by federal regulators. I wonder if those regulators were surprised when a photography company approached them many years ago with plans to use a small reactor. It certainly caught many people by surprise this week.

Top image of Idaho National Laboratory's Advanced Test Reactor courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

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It's funny that this "secret reactor" seems to be such a big deal in the news recently. We used this regularly in my previous life as a microelectronic engineer at Kodak, and it certainly wasn't a secret!

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