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Nuclear Engineering in Prague, 2017

Trey Augustine and Chris Haseler

View from Prague Castle 2017
View from Prague Castle 2017

The first week in Prague was spent touring various sites around the Czech Republic. On Monday, we made the drive to a uranium mine, which is one of the few in the world. The following day, we drove to Temelin, one of the nuclear power plants in the Czech Republic. This was a great tour as we were able to compare this plant’s Russian design with the facilities we are accustomed to seeing in the United States.

On the third day we had the chance to visit a Czech research institute. We were taken on tours to see two of their test reactors located here, as well as various loop structures, which they conduct flow and material research with. This institute was a short train ride outside of Prague, so afterward we went as a group to tour the Prague Castle.

Prague Castle 2017
Prague Castle 2017

This castle was an incredible experience. The highlights of this tour were climbing to the top of the tour for an amazing view of the city, and also visiting the cathedral within the castle. The thing that stood out most to me was the visible age of the architecture and structures. Growing up in the US, I often forget how young we are as a country. Standing inside a cathedral which is centuries older than our country put this into perspective.

This brought us to the midpoint of the first week. It was an extremely busy first few days but ultimately a rewarding mix of both technical and cultural experiences. Thursday morning, we boarded a train as a class headed to Vienna, Austria, where we would spend the next couple of days.

Due to the busy start to the week, and the remaining effects of jet lag, a majority of the class took this three-hour train ride to catch up on some sleep. Those that were able to stay awake were treated to incredible views of the countryside. The distinctive characteristic of the Czech countryside is the vast number of biofuel fields. These fields are planted, then burned with the intent of generating energy. The flowers are brighter then sunflowers, and extend from field to field, filling the horizon.

These fields transitioned from biofuel fields to windfarms as the train made its way into Austria. In just this short train ride, we were able to get a snapshot of both countries and some of the alternative forms of energy they are implementing.

NE Class at UN Vienna
NE Class at UN Vienna

Our time in Vienna, although short, was impactful. After arriving on Thursday afternoon, we had some time that night to familiarize ourselves with the city. The next day was spent at the United Nations. Visiting any of the UN headquarters is exciting in itself since there are only four locations in the world, but visiting the headquarters in Vienna was especially exciting for us because this was the home of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA is an international group which deals with monitoring the nuclear materials and capabilities around the world. We were briefed by a public affair official from the agency. He described the agency’s efforts, and summarized some recent events, which included last year’s highly covered US Iranian nuclear deal. A member of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) gave the second briefing of the day.

As nuclear engineers, and not political scientists, none of our group even knew of this treaty. This treaty put an end to nuclear weapons testing around the world. Although this has been an international norm (for the most part), the US is one of eight countries that have not yet ratified the treaty. Hearing this briefing was my favorite part of the day as it was completely unexpected, yet seemingly a vital cause which I think more attention could be given to in the US.

Following the UN tours, we went to St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the town square of Vienna. It was similar to Prague, and I was struck by the age of the structure. One of the standouts to this tour was not the cathedral above ground, but the crypts below. This marked the end of the first week of our trip. The next morning we boarded our train back to Prague, ready to begin or time on the test reactor.

The second week of our study abroad course in the Czech Republic was an intensive five-day reactor training course on the VR-1 Reactor at Czech Technical University in Prague. The reactor was an easy five-minute walk from our hotel, so at 8:30am every morning we made our way over to the reactor classrooms for a quiz and lecture. After the lecture, the reactor operators powered up the reactor and readied it for experimentation.

Neutron Detection Experiment 2017
Neutron Detection Experiment 2017

The experiments on the reactor covered a variety of different topics, from neutron detection in the core to analyzing criticality conditions. Our first experiment, measuring neutron flux at different locations in the core, involved manually adjusting the positions of detectors while monitoring the power to ensure the reactor remained stable. Each student adjusted a detector and recorded the results.

Each lab focused on a unique concept, including reactor kinetics and dynamics, criticality, reactivity, control rod calibration, and safety systems. My two favorite experiments took place at the end of the week, once we were familiar with the controls.

Reactor Operation Trey 2017
Trey Augustine practices reactor operation in Prague.

First, the reactor criticality experiment involved bringing the reactor to a stable, critical state with only a pen, paper, and basic calculator. The reactor operator steadily raised the control rods according to our calculations. Students were split into groups, and each group approximated where the control rod would need to be to reach criticality. Every single group was within 5mm of the correct location, just by doing the calculations manually.

Reactor Operation Chris 2017
Chris Haseler practices reactor operation in Prague.

The final experiment was the best, in my opinion. We each got a chance to take the helm and control the reactor, raising and lowering control rods to see the effects. When power was increased too high, the safety limits were reached and caused a scram event, safely shutting down the reactor in less than a second. We all got a chance to take control, which I think was the highlight of the trip!