In its watery depths, the nuclear reactor core glows a bright blue, the result of charged particles slowing to the speed of light and radiating electromagnetic energy.

In early 1958, the reservoir on Mount Jefferson, a secluded swimming hole popular with students, rippled in the gust of nearby blasts. Workers dynamited the rocky hillside and backhoes groaned as they uprooted trees to clear the way for a singular venture, one that promised to usher the University of Virginia into the modern era. 

Just west of Grounds, they were building a nuclear reactor.

It was the age of the peaceful atom, and U.Va. was among the first wave of colleges and universities to seize upon this new research tool. Conditions were ripe, born in part by a confluence of faculty who shared a strong interest in the emerging field of nuclear power and a belief that the atom could be harnessed for good instead of evil.

“From the beginning, we have tried to present a complete and true picture of the reactor so that there would be no fear of the unknown,” the dean of the Engineering School, Lawrence R. Quarles (Engr ’29, Grad ’35), said during its dedication in the fall of 1960. An electrical engineer by training, he had designed the controls for the first power reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Almost single-handedly, he persuaded the Virginia legislature to make a $350,000 appropriation to fund the reactor. “I do not believe we have had a single instance of opposition because of real or imagined dangers resulting from reactor operations,” he said.

Concerns about public acceptance were inextricably linked to the way Americans had been introduced to the field of atomic energy, during World War II. As part of a public relations gambit, U.Va. chartered buses on 15-minute schedules from Scott Stadium up the wooded hillside so that people could tour the $600,000 facility.

In 1961, workers lower fuel rods into the pool that houses the reactor.

It didn’t need much fanfare. Initially boasting a power level of 1 million watts, the University’s reactor was the third-most powerful research reactor in the nation. It was housed in a large concrete-and-brick silo recessed into the hillside and protected by earth on three sides. The fourth side, shielded by a concrete wall seven-and-a-half-feet thick, contained several radiation beam ports for conducting experiments. Visitors could gaze down through a rectangular pool where, under 27 feet of purified water, the reactor core sat, fueled by highly enriched uranium courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Ever since the first nuclear chain reaction was achieved beneath Stagg Field at the University of Chicago in 1942, the nation’s colleges and universities have played a crucial role in the development of the atomic program. U.Va. did its share of groundbreaking research and the nuclear engineering program, though small, gained national prominence.

But its early promise foundered in the wake of larger events.

Thirty years after the reactor’s dedication, a controversial move to shut it down was gathering momentum, and the embattled nuclear engineering program faced almost certain extinction. The nuclear industry itself appeared to be marking time.

The Future is Here

It’s been said that no technology in history has evoked such suspicion and fear. None has generated more passion. But there wasn’t always a deep divide.

The University’s program mirrored a national enthusiasm for things nuclear. At the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, futuristic exhibits showcased the Atomic Age and touted the boundless potential of nuclear power in raising standards of living to unimagined heights, including electricity that would be too cheap to meter.

The University’s reactor first went critical on June 24, 1960. In short order, a new undergraduate degree program in nuclear engineering joined the graduate degree program, which had been established in 1957. Student interest soared.

“We used to get the very best students in engineering. When I was here, a 3.8 GPA was low,” recalls Robert U. Mulder (Engr ’76, ’81), a former associate professor of nuclear engineering and ex-director of the reactor. Mulder came to the University from his native Brazil in large part because of the reactor, which brought theoretical learning full circle.

In 1971, the reactor’s power level was upgraded to 2 million watts, which greatly expanded its experimental capabilities. Projects that once took two years to complete could now be done in a year or less. Demand was so high that the staff built another, smaller reactor of 100 watts at the opposite end of the building to help train operators and handle student lab experiments. Dubbed the CAVALIER (Cooperatively Assembled VA Low Intensity Educational Reactor), it went critical in 1974.

Witnessing neutron bombardment could be a heady experience, not to mention a lucrative one. Many engineering students financed their education by becoming reactor operators, earning $8 an hour—a handsome wage at the time.

Few part-time jobs could be more demanding. Students underwent a summer of intensive classroom instruction and written examinations, followed by a one-on-one oral exam courtesy of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). After becoming licensed by the NRC, students still had to undergo constant retraining and lectures to keep their skills sharp.

At full power, the reactor emitted a brilliant blue glow, caused by high-energy electrons as they shot out from the reactor’s core faster than the speed of light and slowed in the surrounding pool. Known as the Cerenkov effect—after the Russian scientist who was finally able to explain it—this otherworldly sight captured the imagination of David A. Heacock (Engr ’79), who first witnessed the phenomenon during an open house for first-year engineering students.

“I was absolutely fascinated by that blue glow,” recalls Heacock, a former site supervisor for the North Anna Power Station, 60 miles northwest of Richmond, Va. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

The job prospects were certainly bright: in the mid-1970s, it was predicted that the U.S. would have 500 commercial nuclear power plants by the year 2000. Today, however, there are only 103 nuclear power plants nationwide.

The biology department used the reactor to irradiate everything from corn to tadpoles for experiments in genetics. The physics and chemistry departments wanted its isotopes. U.Va. Hospital needed radioactive gold and iridium pellets for cancer therapy. At one point, the facility was running around the clock, engaged in a five-year research project for Westinghouse Electric Co. The nature of its task gives a glimpse of how new the science of nuclear energy was: engineers were trying to determine the lifespan of the steel reactor pressure vessel under radiation conditions, then a critical unknown. Several universities worked on the project, but U.Va. was one of the few to run the reactor continuously using University-trained and NRC-licensed student operators.

The reactor also did service work for government and industry, and jobs stacked up from NASA to Phillip Morris. It sterilized medical pipettes with cobalt-60 irradiation and produced radioisotopes for medical use. Busloads of schoolchildren came to watch and wonder. High school teachers came for classroom instruction.

“We served a far larger clientele than our own department,” says Paul Benneche (Engr ’75, ’82), the reactor’s supervisor. “We didn’t just serve nuclear engineers.”

“It was one of the few and one of the best facilities doing neutron radiography,” says former U.Va. professor Jack Brenizer. A powerful imaging technique with widespread applications, neutron radiography allows you to see into materials impossible with an X-ray, such as water flow in soil, or oil flow in an engine.

What we could do has never been duplicated, in my opinion,” he says. Brenizer was forced to reroute a flourishing research career when the facility closed, and now chairs Penn State’s nuclear engineering program.

Forgotten Secrets

For much of its existence, the University’s nuclear reactor operated in the shadow of a more formidable enterprise. Further up Jefferson Hill, legendary physicist Jesse W. Beams was conducting secret research at the behest of the federal government, using an ultracentrifuge to enrich uranium.

The program began in the 1940s and continued for about 40 years, but few people knew about it.

Beams, who succeeded in making the first separation of uranium isotopes in 1941 with the gas centrifuge, worked with the Manhattan Project and maintained his experimental project at U.Va.

A number of graduate students paid for their education doing this classified work, which reached its heyday in the 1970s. “You were relegated to work in this tiny outbuilding,” says Paul Benneche, who knew classmates involved in the project. “You couldn’t even come in the main building unless you had the clearance.” Getting government security clearance took almost a year.

The ultracentrifuge method was an alternative to the gas diffusion method for enriching uranium, which consumed significantly more power. Out of the ground, uranium is principally U-238; the useful part of that is U-235, which is less than 1 percent of the total uranium. Working on the same principle as a cream separator, the ultracentrifuge was used to isolate the U-235 isotopes from the U-238.

The centrifuges were easy to hide: deep pits were dug beneath the building that is now called the Aerospace Research Lab. Huge underground magnetically levitated cylinders spun at speeds faster than a bullet.

According to those involved, the focus of this research was enriching uranium for nuclear fuel—not nuclear weapons. As more power plants came on line, the demand for enriched uranium was increasing. The project remained classified, however, because uranium can become weapons-grade if it’s enriched enough.

When the project folded in 1985, the uranium and all the equipment, including the centrifuge, were shipped to the government’s nuclear research facility in Oak Ridge ,  Tenn.

In the end, the ultracentrifuge technology that Beams pioneered in secret for so many years languished. The demand for enriched uranium wasn’t there: the nation’s nuclear energy requirements fell far short of projections and the future of the nuclear power industry was darkening.

Shifting Sands

The reactor’s fortunes began to slide in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, in 1986, effectively shut the books.

Nuclear engineers saw their profession—once respected, spoken of in admiring terms—suddenly politicized and stigmatized. Many say they still haven’t stopped having to defend what they do.

A research reactor, it is often noted, is different from a commercial reactor. It is analogous to the difference between a prop plane and a Boeing jet; both fly and operate according to the same fundamental dynamics, but the jet is far more complex and powerful. Although the chance of an accident at the reactor was considered extremely remote, the perceived risk of a catastrophic nuclear event remained.

“When Chernobyl happened, I basically had my own misgivings,” Mulder says. “I felt that that would set us back tremendously. It changed the interest of students to come to the department.”

The paradox of such events is that they led to great improvements in safety, but they also killed the nuclear power industry from a growth standpoint.

Heacock graduated a few months after the Three Mile Island disaster. “My graduating class was 12 people,” he says. “I think that was the last double-digit class.”

Public hostility to nuclear power was made plain in a 1997 study commissioned by U.Va. to evaluate the future viability of the reactor: “A ‘bright’ future for nuclear engineering programs, whether in Virginia or elsewhere, is debatable … the hyperbolic claim of the 1970s that development of nuclear energy is a ‘Faustian bargain’ has been taken as a statement of fact.”

That study urged the University’s administration to either invest more resources into the program to bring it back to its former glory or shut it down altogether.

Faculty were retiring almost en masse, having begun their careers in tandem with the emergence of the nuclear power field, in the decade following World War II. By the mid-1990s, three tenured professors remained and a fourth was in semiretirement. Student enrollment dropped further and, amid the uncertainty about the reactor’s future, government-sponsored research and service work for industry began to dry up. By 1995, the undergraduate curriculum had been phased out.

In the years since the reactor was built, new disciplines such as information technology and microelectronics attracted more student interest. Priorities within the engineering school changed. Public institutions like U.Va. were increasingly forced to justify their budgets on the basis of degree production, and the numbers said nuclear engineering wasn’t sexy anymore.

On July 1, 1998, after a 38-year run, U.Va.’s nuclear reactor was shut down. Faculty, alumni and staff gathered the night before for a final farewell, watching as the power curve rose and decayed, running the reactor up until the mandatory midnight cutoff.

U.Va. joined a tide of closures; 45 of the country’s once-dominant fleet of 70 teaching and research reactors have been decommissioned in the past few decades. In Virginia, there are now none left.

Ironically, the nuclear industry appears poised for a revival. The dangers of fossil fuel burning are widely acknowledged to outweigh the dangers of nuclear power generation. The Bush administration’s national energy policy recommends building some 50 new nuclear power plants by 2020 as a way to generate cheaper electricity, though no such plants have been built in more than 20 years. Nuclear energy supplies about 35 percent of the electrical power in Virginia, and about 20 percent nationwide.

Now, Mulder says, “we’re fighting over the minds of a new generation that doesn’t know Chernobyl. Maybe they will have a different mentality.”

Benneche, who has overseen the day-to-day operations at the reactor building since 1985, has had plenty of time to mull over his future. His profession has followed a strange course, but he says he never seriously considered switching careers. “People who study nuclear-related stuff—it’s almost a religion to us. I still think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he says.

Proponents of nuclear energy say that the antinuclear movement in this country is fueled by fear, and fear blocks understanding.

“If we can convince the public that nuclear is a good thing,” Benneche adds, “and convince investors and the power company executives and the legislators, and have them look at it with their eyes completely wide open, without any preconceived notions, then we’d be able to convince them that it’s a far better power than anything we’ve got going.”

Now the last remaining staff member of the nuclear engineering department, Benneche supervised the reactor’s decommissioning, a convoluted process that took more than seven years and cost $5.5 million. The indirect costs—including the loss of trained engineers in the fields of nuclear medicine, waste and energy generation—are harder to calculate.

The radioactive material is gone, shipped to special waste management facilities in South Carolina and Texas, and to federal government facilities elsewhere. The entire site has been decontaminated of residual radioactivity and other hazardous materials. The decommissioning went so well it earned a citation for engineering excellence from the American Council of Engineering Companies.

Up on Mount Jefferson, the former nuclear engineering building with its trademark confinement tower clearly shows its age. But it is by no means empty. Various student groups have turned it into a warren of research activity. They’re fiddling with robotics in the old machine shop; elsewhere, a couple of WWII-era jeeps are being cannibalized for some purpose unclear to the casual visitor. In another lab, they’re trying to construct a device to make wine without crushing the grapes.

In the reactor room itself, the rectangular pool that once housed fuel rods in its depths has been covered by a steel grate and plywood. The space is now the cluttered workshop of a group of engineering students fascinated by an altogether different energy source; between classes and exams, they’re tinkering with the latest generation of solar-powered vehicle.

What’s Next?

If student interest isn’t fickle, it’s certainly cyclical.

More than some other academic disciplines, the Engineering School’s curriculum evolves in the wake of societal trends, and its course offerings continue to change in tandem with emerging technologies and an increasingly globalized society.

During the Internet boom in the late 1990s, information technology was all the rage. Student demand was so overwhelming that the Engineering School had to cap enrollment in computer science and computer engineering. When the bubble burst around 2000, that program lost some of its sizzle.

“We still have reasonable numbers going into computer science, and there are still lots of job openings, but not the hysteria,” says James H. Aylor (Engr ’68, ’77), dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “It’s no longer perceived to be the only hot area.”

General engineering programs such as systems engineering are always solidly popular standbys, but the dominating field these days is biomedical engineering.

“The 21st century is being called the biology century,” says Aylor,  and biomedical advances are expected to dominate developments in science and technology. The school added an undergraduate degree program in biomedical engineering two years ago in response to strong student demand. It already has a well-regarded graduate program, currently ranked 12th in the nation.

One of the emerging fields attracting the attention of students is that of alternative energy sources, such as biodiesel. As the government pumps more research dollars into this new field, it’s likely to get even bigger.

“Job prospects really dominate what students are interested in,” Aylor says. “Many students don’t know what discipline they want to pursue when they come in; they look at salaries, what the media is saying, what other people are saying is hot.”

The school continues on a trend toward more interdisciplinary programs. The biomedical engineering department shares faculty from both the engineering and medical schools. Mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering are moving in a similar direction.

“The interesting problems are at the boundaries of the disciplines,” says Aylor.