Reed College Research Reactor – Portland, Oregon - Atlas Obscura

Reed College Research Reactor

World's only nuclear reactor operated by liberal arts undergraduates. 


Manned by a staff of 40 undergraduate students, the Reed College Research Reactor has been in use as a research and teaching facility since 1968. Reed is the only liberal arts college in the world with a nuclear reactor.

The technical details, according to their web site: “The Reed College Reactor is a TRIGA Mark I water-cooled, ‘swimming pool’ reactor at the bottom of a 25-foot-deep tank. It uses 58 zirconium hydride/uranium hydride fuel elements in a circular grid array. The uranium fuel is enriched to 20 percent in uranium-235. The reactor is surrounded by a graphite ring which minimizes neutron leakage by reflecting neutrons back into the core.”

The term “swimming pool reactor” takes on new meaning once you learn that, until a few years ago, a family of rubber duckies floated atop the cooling water, though federal inspectors did eventually put the kibosh on them, citing a violation of protocol.

In its entire history, no one has fallen into the pool, but operators assure us that nothing is bad about the water itself. They are even prepared for the worst, thanks to a life ring labeled “S. S. Arthur F. Scott.”

In order to be part of the team that works with the reactor, students must receive a license from the school, which is based on a 3-hour written exam and a 4-hour walk-through operational-oral exam administered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington D.C. The college also offers a 40-hour Radiation Safety Officer (RSO) Class and is licensed by the state of Oregon to perform calibrations of radiation survey meters (for a fee).

Since Reed does not have a nuclear engineering department (or any engineering department), the staff comes from a broad selection of academic majors, primarily in the sciences but including nearly every major—from English and philosophy to psychology, religion, economics, and political science. According to one astonishing statistic, the Reed Research Reactor has more female reactor operators than all the other research reactors in the world… combined.

The primary purpose of the reactor is to produce neutrons, which are used for research. The reactor produces 250 kilowatts of heat, about 10 times as much as a home furnace, which they currently do not use.

In 2005, ABC News sent an team to investigate the security of the reactor along with several other university reactors. Although they found the Reed reactor locked behind several doors, they showed a remarkable lack of curiosity or wonder when they questioned why a school with no engineering program needed to maintain such a device.

The reactor gives tours to 1000 visitors a year, mostly students from other schools and other affiliates of educational institutions; the tours climax in a demonstration of the blue, radioactive glow of Cherenkov radiation. The tours are generally not offered to members of the public.

The experience is punctuated by an explanation of the term for emergency shut down: “SCRAM.” 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. 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!


Know Before You Go

Reed is located five miles from downtown Portland.To visit, you should be affiliated with an education institution or otherwise visiting for educational purposes. Complete the tour request form from the official website. (See the link in the Sources section below.) They will try to contact you within three business days regarding your tour request.

In partnership with KAYAK

Plan Your Trip

From Around the Web