To explore the structure and dynamics of novel materials, the more than two dozen scientific instruments at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)'s Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) all depend on one thing: a steady supply of neutrons from the center's research reactor. On July 9 NCNR scientists and the scientific community learned they will be able to depend on their neutron source for at least another two decades.
Neutron beams from the research reactor are applied to study problems ranging from biology to materials science. Recent NCNR advances include the discovery of a material that may one day enable household refrigerators to cool with magnets, increasing efficiency, as well as the characterization of magnetic nanoparticles that are being studied for cancer therapies that could kill diseased cells without damaging nearby healthy tissue.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently completed its extensive review of the research reactor, which has just been relicensed to continue operation until July 2029. NIST marked the event with a brief ceremony, during which NCNR Acting Director Robert Dimeo acknowledged the contributions of those who have helped the facility grow in size and technical capabilities since its previous relicensing in 1984.
The rigorous relicensing process took the better part of nine years, which required NCNR staff, particularly the Reactor Operations and Engineering Group, to run the research reactor through a gauntlet of safety analyses that were then independently verified by technical experts hired by NRC.
"In essence, we had to demonstrate that the reactor was as safe to operate as it was in 1967, when it was first built," says NCNR's Michael Rowe. "This was not a simple process, and we went through many rounds of questions with the NRC to ensure all of their concerns were addressed."
In the end, NRC concluded that the research reactor can be operated for the period of extended operation without undue risk to the health and safety of the public. The relicensing clears the way for the remainder of the NCNR's current expansion project, a 30 percent increase in the space available for instruments at the facility's "cold neutron" guide hall. Cold neutrons, with their long wavelengths, are very well suited for probing nanoscale systems.
"We are currently oversubscribed by more than a factor of two," says NCNR's Dan Neumann. "There is clearly a scientific demand for this increased capacity."