The 10-megawatt MU Research Reactor off south Providence Road, which began operations in 1966, is the largest university-operated research reactor in the United States.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology comes in second with a reactor half the size of MU’s. Rolla’s reactor is 0.2 megawatts.
The main function of the MU reactor is to produce neutrons, which are the parts of an atom used to create radiation. The reactor does not have the capacity for energy production.
The AmerenUE power reactor in Callaway County, in contrast, produces thermal energy for electricity and is 350 times bigger than the reactor in Columbia. The Callaway plant operates at 600 degrees, while Columbia’s stays at 130 degrees.
Reactor attracts students, grants
“There’s a lot of research grants because we have the reactor,” said David Robertson, associate director of research and education at MU’s reactor. “We have some of the best students and graduate students in the nation that came here as opposed to other top-tier schools because they could do work with the research reactor.”
Over the years, MU has developed radiopharmaceuticals, which are radiation therapy drugs. One drug, TheraSphere, specifically targets cancerous liver cells with radiation and was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in March 2000, Robertson said. Quadramet, also produced by MU and approved by the FDA, helps treat the pain from secondary bone cancer and has become a successful alternative to morphine.
Currently, researchers are working on drugs to treat cancer using different amounts of radiation based on the patient’s needs.
“We’re trying to develop a toolbox of tools to treat the cancer without having to reinvent the drug every time,” Robertson said.
Other research conducted at the reactor includes archaeometry, the science of analyzing materials to understand how they were made or where they came from. The reactor can also test mineral composition in the human body in an effort to determine whether certain minerals can help protect someone against cancer.
Roberston said schools such as Harvard, Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins send samples to the reactor to be tested.
“The research reactor is known for being able to do things that only a unique facility can do,” he said.
Robertson also said the university and research reactor have invested in the facilities to make radiopharmaceutical drugs. In the future, they would like to be able to take experimental products and work with doctors at University Hospital in clinical trials.
Students benefit from the reactor by being able to gain hands-on experience. Peter Situ, a doctoral student in nuclear engineering at MU, is interested in radiopharmaceutical research and completed a semester practicum at the reactor during his master’s program.
Situ said that he sees benefits from being able to apply the theories he learned in the classroom and that the classes required in the program fulfill many of the prerequisites for board certification in medical or health physics.
After graduation, students with interests in the field of power generation typically find positions in the nuclear power industry where electricity is produced using thermal energy from nuclear fuel. Some graduates work as medical physicists using radiation to diagnose and treat disease. Others work in the field of radiation protection in industries or research institutions, to ensure the safe use of radiation.