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☢️ A weird deep dive into Reed College’s nuclear reactor

It’s WEDNESDAY.

And if you’ve been a constant reader, you know what that means — we’re getting weird today.

Every week, we celebrate elements of Portland’s wonderful weirdness in collaboration with Weird Portland United.

If you haven’t read any features from this series yet, you can find our archive of Weird Wednesdays past right here. Previous features have profiled The Unipiper, the Portland Sleestak, Spencer Sprocket, Carlos the Rollerblader, Strawberry Pickle, and many more colorful local characters.

But for today, I’m gonna need you to slap on a HAZMAT suit and follow me onto the campus of Reed College because we’re doing a deep dive into the strange history and function of Reed College’s nuclear reactor.

Zip up; here we go.

No, this is not ripped from the pages of a pulpy sci-fi paperback — there’s actually a nuclear reactor at Reed College. 

It’s been there since 1968, located beneath a “swimming pool” of water and operated consistently by a team of 40 students responsible for its maintenance.

Being a liberal arts college and all, Reed doesn’t actually have a proper nuclear engineering department — or any engineering departments for that matter. However, because there’s no sense in letting good radioactivity go to waste, students who qualify to work with the reactor can become licensed as Radiation Safety Officers.

Now for the million dollar question: why’s it there? Its primary function is to produce neutrons, which are in turn used for research purposes. The reactor itself produces 250 kilowatts of heat — which is about 10 times as much as a traditional home furnace — and is not currently utilized.

While the reactor gets around 1,000 visitors a year (primarily students from other schools), it’s not actually open to the public. A tour typically concludes with a show of the reactor in action: Onlookers will see displays of Cherenkov radiation cast a blue glow about.

Feeling a little worried about a nuclear reactor being so close to home? Fear not — there’s a SCRAM shutdown plan should things ever get squirrely. Also, the reactor doesn’t have enough fissile material to actually melt down, so you can take that concern off the ol’ existential dread list.

Wondering where such a fun acronym came from? “Originating at the first research reactor, the Chicago Pile, operators controlled the radiation put off by raising and lowering the rods via ropes and pulleys,” Atlas Obscura wrote. “There was one man on-site whose only job was to stand at the ready with an axe should the rods be drawn too far out of the core. His name? Safety Control Rod Axe Man – or ‘SCRAM’ for short!”

You can learn more about Reed’s reactor on the college’s website.

Thank you to our Bridgeliner Unabridged members. Stories like these are made possible with your membership and support.