After more than a decade of carefully dismantling the University of Michigan’s nuclear reactor and clearing the building of radiation, the university initiated the facility’s second life as the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory today with a “wallbreaking” ceremony to kick off construction.
“The Nuclear Engineering Laboratory will provide new, world-class research spaces to enable Michigan faculty and students to make major impacts on nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear reactor safety and homeland security,” said Ronald Gilgenbach, Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professor and chair of the department of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences.
The $12 million renovation is made possible in large part by Bob and Betty Beyster, who gave the first $5 million for the project in 2012. Bob Beyster received bachelor’s degrees in engineering physics and engineering math in 1945. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in physics at U-M in 1947 and 1950, respectively.
“Dad was always appreciative of the education that he received at University of Michigan,” said Mary Ann Beyster, daughter of Bob and Betty Beyster and president of the Foundation for Enterprise Development. “The physics-based education, in particular, gave him the foundation for his numerous technical papers in physics, leadership as a chairman of an accelerator physics department and passion for starting a company, Science Applications International Corporation, that addressed nationally important nuclear priorities for the federal government and private sector for more than three decades.”
The finished, four-story building will contain 13,200 square feet of laboratories, offices and conference rooms. Inside it:
- The Glenn F. Knoll Nuclear Measurements Laboratory will commemorate a leader in the field of nuclear measurements, a beloved mentor and former nuclear engineering and radiological sciences (NERS) professor, department chair and interim dean of the college of engineering. Knoll earned his PhD from the NERS department in 1963. Zhong He and David Wehe, both professors of NERS, will build and test gamma ray cameras for detecting nuclear materials in this lab.
- The Harold N. Cohn Conference Room will provide formal discussion space with a view of the reflecting pool given to the college by the class of 1947, of which Cohn was a member. He received his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering that year.
- The John S. King Student Collaboratory will serve as an informal space for students to work and discuss ideas with one another and with faculty. Back when the Ford Nuclear Reactor was new (in the mid-1950s), King led the effort to set up a world-class research program for the study of material structures using neutrons produced in the reactor. King earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Princeton, followed at U-M by a second bachelor’s in engineering in 1948 and then master’s and doctoral degrees respectively in 1949 and 1953.
- Sara Pozzi, a professor of NERS, will house her Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation group in the new lab space. The radiation detection methods developed under the Consortium for Verification Technology, led by Pozzi, Wehe and He, are important for efforts to ensure that nuclear materials aren’t used as weapons.
- Annalisa Manera, an associate professor of NERS, will study the movement of water and steam as it relates to cooling nuclear reactors to explore ways to improve the safety of nuclear reactors and reduce the cost of building them.
- Michael Atzmon, a professor of NERS, will investigate amorphous materials, which have relevance to radiation damage. His group explores the foundations of their material properties.
“I was moved to endow the Radiation Measurements Lab when Professor Gilgenbach told me that the lab was designed by David Wehe and Zhong He as the ‘lab of their dreams!’ They are continuing the work of my late husband, and I like to think of this lab as our gift to both of them,” said Gladys Hetzner Knoll, who received a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1978 and a master’s in 1980, and is the widow of Glenn Knoll.
The building was first constructed as part of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project. The original lab was founded after World War II by students, faculty, alumni and friends, who wanted to build a living memorial to members of the University community who had died in the fight. The Phoenix Project, which was recognized by President Eisenhower, established a place for researchers to investigate peaceful uses of nuclear technologies, such as life-saving medical treatments and abundant energy.
The Ford Nuclear Reactor, completed in 1955, was instrumental in advancing nuclear medicine and nuclear power, and it provided a training ground for generations of nuclear engineers. But as the needs of the research community shifted, the University of Michigan decommissioned the reactor.
“By adapting an historic reactor building, we have created the new nuclear engineering labs to address critical current and future problems in nuclear measurements and nonproliferation,” said David Munson, Jr., the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering.
The space is well suited to nuclear engineering research because the thick walls are designed to stop radiation, protecting the people inside and out of the building. While the reactor was once the centerpiece of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, the spirit of its founders will live on in the Nuclear Engineering Laboratories.
“Nuclear power remains the only carbon-free way we have to generate consistent electrical power at large and growing scale, and has vital contributions to make to significantly reducing carbon emissions while meeting our electricity needs,” said Mark Barteau, the DTE Professor of Advanced Energy Research and director of the U-M Energy Institute.
“Alternative reactor designs, safety enhancements for existing designs, and new approaches to nonproliferation and storage are keys to success for realizing the potential of nuclear energy in a low-carbon future, and we’re fortunate at U-M to be home to leaders in each of those areas.”
This project is also made possible by $800,000 in gifts from Gladys Hetzner Knoll, the Estate of Harold N. Cohn and the family and friends of John S. King.