Fri, Jan 17, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Highways & Byways:The pool of blue light: Hsinchu’s research reactor

Built in 1961, Taiwan’s only research nuclear reactor is safe to visit, providing a glimpse of the nation’s atomic endeavors

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

The lower-power pool and metal platform from which the core is suspended.

Photo by Steven Crook

Like most people living in Taiwan, I’ve long been aware that the country has a small number of nuclear power stations, and that politicians and experts continue to argue about the future of atomic energy on this island. But until recently, I didn’t know that National Tsing Hua University (國立清華大學, NTHU) in Hsinchu has its own nuclear reactor.

In an article titled “Free China builds her first reactor,” the July 1961 issue of Free China Review reported that construction began in 1958. The following spring, “the equipment for the reactor arrived and actual engineering work was initiated to put the component parts together. With the insertion of enriched uranium fuel elements into the reactor core, the first nuclear reactor in Free China was finally brought to life on April 13 of this year.”

Reactor components were sourced from the General Electric Company, but local engineers were “exclusively” responsible for assembly, the article claims. They “modified certain specifications of the original plan to suit their own special needs … Where the original plan was found impractical, they improvised.”

According to the article, the reactor cost US$1.15 million, roughly US$10 million in today’s money. About a third of the budget came from the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

What’s known as the Tsing Hua Open-Pool Reactor (清華大學水池式反應器, THOR) is Taiwan’s only research reactor. Two others operated by NTHU, and three at the Taoyuan-based Institute of Nuclear Energy Research (核能研究所, INER), have been decommissioned and dismantled.

“Compared to nuclear power plants, research reactors are far simpler, and they generate much less waste, so decommissioning isn’t difficult,” Professor Yeh Tsung-kuang (葉宗洸), director of NTHU’s Nuclear Science and Technology Development Center, tells me before one of his colleagues gives me a tour of NTHU’s Nuclear Reactor Building.

IF YOU GO

Those interested in visiting THOR can email NTHU’s College of Nuclear Science at reactor@my.nthu.edu.tw.

GETTING THERE: Parking on or near the campus is very difficult, so use public transportation. The northern entrance to NTHU’s main campus is served by various buses from Taipei including the 1728, 2011 and 5500. City buses 2 and 31 link the university with Hsinchu TRA Station. It takes around 15 minutes to walk from the northern entrance to the reactor building.


Between the late 1960s and late 1980s, Taiwan hoped to arm itself with atom bombs. “Students have asked me, ‘Are we developing nuclear weapons here?’” Yeh says with a smile. “I’d tell them: ‘I hate to disappoint you, but, no, we’re not developing any on campus.’”

“When we’re working around the reactor, we always wear dosimeters,” explains nuclear technician Dr Lee Jin-der (李進得) as he leads me to THOR’s control room. “As you can see, the current radiation dose is about 0.15 microsieverts per hour, which is background radiation level. When the reactor is operating, there are always two people working here, and the level in the control room goes up to about 0.4. We don’t need to wear protective clothing. When you take a passenger jet, you’re exposed to much more radiation, around 2 microsieverts per hour.”

Inside the control room, which is smaller than many bedrooms, there’s a diagram which shows how water drawn from the municipal supply undergoes purification, enters the reactor’s high-power pool, flows into a clean-up tank that removes radioisotopes, proceeds to a heat exchanger for cooling, and then returns to the pool.

Near an area radiation monitor displaying current levels of 15 categories of gamma and neutron radiation, Lee holds up a box of 3.5-inch diskettes: “We still use these to store data, because the computers were installed in 1993. We want to renew the system, but we don’t have enough money to do it,” he said, joking that if they ever run out of diskettes, they’d have to scour online auction sites to find new ones.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top