PULLMAN, Wash. -- A 50th anniversary wasn't celebrated with a bang Monday night, but rather with a glowing blue light in 65,000 gallons of water.
Staff and guests of the Dodgen Nuclear Radiation Center gathered at 9:58 p.m. to watch the reactor reach full power exactly 50 years after it first powered up.
The Washington State University reactor does that almost daily, and it takes 10 to 15 minutes to reach full power.
The center performs research and distributes isotopes to WSU classes and companies across the nation. It's not used for energy production in the area.
Five of its operators are WSU students, who receive one-on-one, hands-on training. The center is one of 27 research and test reactors in the country, and one of just five or six that allows tours.
"It's an incredibly safe facility and an incredibly safe design," said Corey Hines, the reactor's supervisor.
He said the water surrounding the reactor is like a gigantic water heater and the water's not radioactive -- employees touch it all the time. Radiation coming off the reactor is blocked by the water, mainly because of the water's purity.
Hines said employers or those near the center are not at risk of radiation poisoning.
"I get less radiation working here than if I worked outside," he said.
Gerald Tripard, a former director of the center, told the group it will take a lot of effort to make people recognize that nuclear energy is the energy of the future, not something to be afraid of.
"The generation that was brainwashed against nuclear power has to die off," he said. "You're not going to change their minds."
Tripard said there are about two generations of people who are "zealots" and aren't teachable, even if provided with facts and logic.
People wonder what will be done with nuclear waste, he said, and don't realize the planet is one big nuclear waste dump from a supernova in the past.
"We live on a nuclear waste dump. Our bodies contain nuclear waste from nuclear reactions, and most people don't know that," he said.
For instance, Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, or MRIs, once had "nuclear" in the name. However, through pressure of anti-nuclear activism, doctors dropped the word.
"That's how pervasive this is. There are people ... in my life ... who are deathly afraid of anything nuclear," Tripard said.
The center's current director, Don Wall, said nuclear facilities produce little waste.
If WSU's center were to run for 24 hours straight, it could power 700 houses. The waste from that energy would be a piece of uranium about the size of half a grain of rice.
If a person used all nuclear energy for their entire life, waste from that could fit in the palm of their hand.
Wall said the nuclear energy doesn't emit any toxic chemicals, and any CO2 emitted in the plant is from people breathing inside.
About one-fifth of the nation's electricity comes from nuclear energy, and about half comes from coal.
"Coal is the dirtiest of all the fuels," he said, because it has mercury, uranium and other chemicals. When burned, its waste goes to a hazardous waste landfill and in the air. Every year, 3,000 to 10,000 people die from respiratory illnesses and other illnesses from breathing in coal fumes, sometimes people living downwind from a plant.
"Which one should we be more afraid of? The one that's killing people every day? Or the one that hasn't killed anybody for years?" Wall said.
"That's a pretty good safety record, isn't it? People are afraid of it, but the record speaks for itself," he said.
Kelsey Husky can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 237, or by e-mail to khuskydnews.com. Follow her on Twitter: DNKelseyHusky.
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