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August 3, 2023

Undergrads gain hands-on experience operating nuclear reactor

Written By: Samantha Vold


The UW Nuclear Reactor has been running for a little over 60 years, and undergraduate involvement has always been a large component of the operations. Through an elective course focused on reactor operations, followed by an independent study, students could become licensed reactor operators. As of 2022, 90 undergraduate students have been licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

During an average week, the student operators run two six-hour operations, perform maintenance activities, and lead tours of the facility. Dan Mancheski, a junior in nuclear engineering, describes an operation day, “We come in in the morning and start up the reactor. Depending on any samples we need to run or any irradiations we need to do, we’ll do that at full power. We’ll keep it steady at full power for about six hours, then at the end of the day, we’ll shut the reactor down and close up for the day.”

Another service the reactor provides is course support. Ali Holden, a sophomore nuclear engineering student, says, “We run on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because NE 427 and 428 run on those days and sometimes they need some support.” Some labs require the operators to be performing various operations, while others may need irradiated samples or data from the reactor. In a new course started by Associate Professor Adrien Couet, first-year students are introduced to the nuclear reactor early in their undergraduate careers. Students also work on a design challenge involving the reactor.

Student operators also lead tours of the nuclear reactor for various groups. Ali Holden (left) explains the process of fission to AmyRose Murphy, Rep. Donna Rozar, Jorge Villareal, and Rep. Nate Gustafson.

For all of the operators, working with the reactor is an invaluable experience. They get the opportunity to gain hands-on, practical knowledge that other students may not. For senior nuclear engineering student Brienna Johnson, being a reactor operator has been one of her favorite experiences at UW-Madison. “I really love operating. Every interview, every chance I’ve had with the department or elsewhere, I talk about being an operator and the experience. I think it has been a very defining aspect of my college education.”

Featured image: Dan Mancheski (left), Ali Holden (middle), and Brienna Johnson (right) in front of the UW Nuclear Reactor control panel.