Nation's First Digital Nuclear Reactor Dedicated at Purdue

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Purdue University's Nuclear Reactor was converted to digital technology. (Purdue University photo/Vincent Walker) Purdue University's Nuclear Reactor was converted to digital technology. (Purdue University photo/Vincent Walker)

The country’s first all-digital nuclear reactor sits inside a science building on the campus of Purdue University, ready for scientists and students alike to advance the study of nuclear power.  A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on the West Lafayette campus to celebrate the conversion of Purdue University Reactor Number One from an analog to a digital format.

That process took four years to complete and required licensure from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials. “There was a large regulatory hurdle to overcome,” said Clive Townsend, the supervisor for Purdue University Reactor Number One.

The university says all other reactors in the U.S. still operate with some analog technology, using vacuum tubes and hand-soldered wires. Townsend says taking research data accurately and quickly is difficult with an analog system, while as with digital it’s measured instantly.

“As the United States and the world continue to implement digital technology, that introduces both strengths and vulnerabilities that need to be explored and understood because our economy relies on the resiliency of these systems.” Townsend adds that digital technology allows operators to identify problems or performance interruptions before the scheduled maintenance time.

The Purdue facility will serve as the nation’s first cyber-nuclear testbed for corporate partners and academic researchers.

“We are inviting and forming partnerships – that could be private, other universities or national labs – to explore how we can leverage the strengths of digital systems in order to ensure reliability,” Townsend said.

The university says PUR-1 is used not only for instruction, but it also attracts thousands of visitors every year. Townsend says high school students, Boy Scouts and 4-H Clubs have toured the facility.

“We’re seeing renewed interest by members of the public and future students, as well as collaborations in private and public sectors, to use this small reactor for a variety of purposes, including detector characterization and new outreach capabilities across both the U.S. and the world,” Townsend said. “It’s really breathed new life, as well as new research capabilities.”

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