By UW Sustainability | Nov 23, 2015

UW's ENVIR 480: Sustainability Studio class in the Program on the Environment presents students with a sustainability topic which they engage in as part of an experiential learning course. The topics change each quarter - this spring, the students researched the UW's environmental history. This is part of a series of posts by the students on some of the information they uncovered.

In 1961, nuclear power came to the UW campus. UW's teaching reactor was used by graduate students with training in reactor physics, engineering, design, and operation. It was a cooperative undertaking by the chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical, and metallurgical engineering departments.

At the start of the Cold War, the study of nuclear power had become the new frontier in science and mechanical engineering. Its raw destructive power was not only researched for nuclear weapons, but also studied for its abilities in power generation. At the time, nuclear power was seen as the energy of the future, as it was clean (compared to polluting fossil fuel plants), powerful, and resourceful - one fuel rod could emit energy for years.

In the 1950’s universities were creating departments and opportunities for nuclear research. In 1953, the UW College of Engineering offered its first nuclear engineering class. College dean Harold Wessman inquired about developing a nuclear engineering department and asked chemical engineering professor Albert L. Babb to develop it. In 1965 the Department of Nuclear Engineering was fully created with Babb as its chair.

At the time, universities across the nation were also developing nuclear power departments and small reactors for research projects. In 1961 UW completed construction of its first nuclear reactor in More Hall, called the Educator. The reactor was 15 feet high, 20 feet long and 19 feet wide. The reactor was limited to producing only 10 kilowatts of energy to prevent any serious leaks or contamination.

University architect Fred Mann hired a group of professors to design the building. Babb was one of the leading voices, requesting that an upper platform with windows be a part of the design. He believed that nuclear power would provide clean efficient energy and wanted to allow students and the public to see its potential. On June 1, 1961 the reactor was officially dedicated and turned on.

The reactor would run for 27 years, offering research services and training opportunities for students and faculty in the nuclear engineering department. However, by the 1980s concern about waste management and the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident put doubt into the viability of nuclear energy. The reactor was shut down in 1988, with its cores and equipment shipped to the Hanford nuclear power plant.

In 1992, the Department of Nuclear Engineering was disbanded. The reactor building was used for storage, and in 2006 the reactor was completely decommissioned. The UW has looked into demolishing the building and using the space for expansion. In response, a student-led group got More Hall Annex listed on the Washington Heritage Register as a historic building. The university is currently again looking at using the space, possibly for a new Computer Science Engineering facliity, which could still mean the building will be demolished.

Today the reactor's building, now called the More Hall Annex, stands empty and relatively unused. Even now you can walk along the upper balcony and see the supports that housed the reactor and the control room that trained so many engineers.

By Merrick Calder and Kasidit Nusitchaiyakan

Photos courtesy of UW Libraries Special Collections, UWC1461; and Wikimedia Commons user Joe Mabel.

For more information on the environmental history of UW, see our interactive timeline "A Century of Sustainability" at green.uw.edu/timeline.