Granite Geek: A look at the nuclear reactor in Lowell, Mass. (wait – Lowell?!?)

The reactor at UMass-Lowell. 2024.

The reactor at UMass-Lowell. 2024. Edwin Aguirre/UMass Lowell—Courtesy

Published: 06-03-2024 3:25 PM

Modified: 06-07-2024 10:06 AM

If you want to win a bar bet, try this question: Where’s the closest nuclear reactor?

People will say Seabrook, of course, but depending on where you are in the Concord area the answer might actually be Lowell, Mass. (Check distances on a map before making the bet.)

This works because almost nobody knows there is a nuclear reactor just south of the New Hampshire line, even though it has been there for decades.

“We’re always glad for some publicity,” said Dr. Sukesh Aghara, director of the nuclear nuclear engineering program at UMass-Lowell, home to an open-pool nuclear reactor. He’ll even give tours!

It’s not much of a reactor by power-production standards: Just one megawatt, compared to Seabrook’s 1,244. But that’s fine because its role isn’t to make electricity. It exists to help teach students to be nuclear engineers as part of New England’s only accredited program in the subject for a public university (MIT has one, too).

I bring this up now because nuclear power is having something of a comeback after decades of stagnation because the growing disaster of climate change has underlined the need for electricity production that doesn’t generate greenhouse gases. That idea was formalized in December at COP28, the global climate summit, which said the world needs to triple nuclear energy production even as we build as much solar, wind, geothermal and every other non-fossil-fuel energy device as we can.

“For a long time, people who are pro-renewables somehow had to be anti-nuclear. I think this has turned the corner for that,” said Aghara.

Not everybody agrees. I recently got a press release from the Clamshell Alliance, the folks who helped scuttle a second Seabrook reactor in 1984. They want us to know they’re still around and still think the drawbacks of atomic fuel mean it shouldn’t be used to boil water to spin turbines. Many other folks, myself included, worry that the enormous construction time and cost of building nuclear plants limits their effectiveness in the energy transition.

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But plenty of people are very pro-nuclear these days, especially overseas. There are 57 reactors being built throughout the world at the moment. Twenty-one are in China but they’re also going into places like Argentina, Turkey, Bangladesh and Egypt.

Aghara says technical improvements are raising nuclear hopes. There’s a push to build smaller modular reactors, rather than gigawatt-scale behemoths like Seabrook, and to make use of the huge amounts of waste heat for thermal storage, which would be a huge benefit to renewable power.

Whatever the reason, lots of new nuclear power will require lots of new nuclear engineers, which would seem to be good news for UMass-Lowell.

The school’s nuclear engineering program dates back to the 1960’s, when it was still the University of Lowell. The program boomed through the heyday of the 1980s but stagnated as the industry did, hitting a nadir with the 2014 Fukushima disaster and the arrival of cheap natural gas, which kicked the economic legs out from under inflexible baseload nuclear plants.

Aghara says the school made the decision more than a decade ago to reinvigorate the program, which had shrunk to fewer than three dozen undergraduate students and a tiny graduate program. More staff were hired and the curriculum was overhauled, with the result that undergraduate enrollment hit 74 before COVID derailed things. Enrollment is back up to 52 and growing, he said.

I’ve got to think the program’s uniqueness increases its value for UMass-Lowell which, like every other college, faces a decline in traditional college-age students.

The nuclear engineering program is part of the chemical engineering department – graduates get a chemical engineering degree with a nuclear engineering option – and is alongside the radiological health physics program, which studies the use of radiation in medical treatment.

If nothing else, these associated career options help Aghara avoid the most dreaded task of a college professor: “I don’t have to tell parents why their student didn’t get a job.”