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Nuclear technology in your life today

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 12:50am
Texas A&M UniversityTexas A&M University

In response to National Nuclear Science Week, two students, Lily Raabe and Kristina Yancey, of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M wrote the following, in hopes to share knowledge not commonly known to the general public about nuclear technology in our lives.

Electricity has many applications, from phones and video games to hospital equipment and air conditioning. It would be difficult to achieve the current standard of living without using large quantities of energy. Of the electricity consumed in the United States, approximately 20 percent is provided by one hundred nuclear power plants. However, the science that runs these facilities is largely misunderstood by the public it serves. Nuclear science has functions not just in the energy sector, but also in many industrial and medical areas. 

In Texas, there are four commercial nuclear reactors located at two sites that generate approximately 5,000 MW of electricity. Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant is 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth, and the South Texas Project is 90 miles southwest of Houston. These plants began operation in 1990 and 1988, respectively, and are a reliable source of energy that have safely provided electricity to Texas residents for over 20 years. 

Additionally, there are three research reactors in Texas, two of which are owned by Texas A&M University here in College Station. The AGN-201M, a low power teaching reactor, was purchased in 1957 and has resided in the basement of the Zachry Engineering Center since 1972. The maximum power level of this reactor is five Watts, which is less than a household light bulb! The second, a 1MW TRIGA Mark 1 reactor, is located near the College Station Airport, and began operation in 1961. It is designed for optimal irradiation of samples and is used to produce a number of radioisotopes for medical and industry applications. Both reactors are used for students to gain experience and understanding through controlled lab experiments and research.

Nuclear technology provides a range of services, including many medical applications. Medical isotopes are used for imaging techniques, diagnostic procedures, and cancer treatments. Common nuclear medicine procedures include PET scans, CT scans and X-rays. Nuclear science is also used to save human lives through the use of smoke detectors, which contain a small radioactive source. Other safety applications include food irradiation and sterilization. In these uses, irradiation is the process of using low levels of radiation to kill bacteria. The procedure does not make the product radioactive, and is currently used to sterilize many common objects, such as contact solution, makeup, baby bottles, and bandages. Similarly, food irradiation is used on spices and produce. The National Center for Electron Beam Research is located on west campus of Texas A&M and irradiates food that NASA sends to the International Space Station. 

Nuclear science plays a prominent role in many of the products we enjoy every day. Through safe generation of electricity, the medical treatments available to patients, and the ordinary products used by consumers, nuclear technology has a significant impact on our lives. October 21-25 is National Nuclear Science Week. To celebrate, TAMU Women in Nuclear invites members of the Texas A&M community to a showing of “Powering America” followed by a question and answer session on October 24th at 6:30 in the Civil Engineering Building. Join us to expand your understanding of nuclear technology and celebrate the benefits of nuclear science. 

About the authors: 

Lily Raabe is a 5th year nuclear engineering major with a minor in radiological health engineering from Poth, Texas. In addition to her position as an officer of the A&M chapter of Women in Nuclear, Lily has served as a leader in the TAMU Nuclear Science Merit Badge program, an Aggie Muster Host, and a member of the Nuclear Engineering Student Advisory Council. 

Kristina Yancey

Kristina Yancey is the proudest member of the Fighting Texas Aggie Class of 2010! She recently passed her master's defense and has started working toward her Ph.D. in the nuclear engineering department.

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