A nuclear reactor at the University of Wisconsin will be converted to run on a less dangerous fuel to better prevent a hazardous situation from occurring if the reactor were used with malicious intentions.

The reactor will switch the type of uranium it uses as part of a national safety initiative started by the Department of Energy in the 1980s.

“It’s been the DOE’s policy since the 1980s that they wanted to switch from high enrichment to low enrichment because that creates less of a hazard if people want to use it for mischievous purposes,” UW engineering physics professor Michael Corradini said.

Corradini said UW’s reactor is the last in the U.S. to be converted to the lower enrichment of uranium as the DOE has been constrained to switching only a few each year due to budgetary concerns.

“Because our design’s physical protection is inherent, there is no rush,” Corradini said. “We’re the last one. We’re just finishing up what has been planned for 20 years.”

Corradini said the reactor is used as a teaching mechanism in the undergraduate and graduate nuclear engineering program at UW, giving students hands-on experience with the tool. On top of that, it is used to train students to be reactor operators and is a source of radiation for research at the university.

He added there are over 100 research reactors globally that are used for research and training purposes similar to UW’s.

In a university statement, Reactor Director Robert Agasie described the change in fuel as a unique educational opportunity as students have been very involved in planning and eventually executing the changeover.

“They’re seeing firsthand, hands-on, similar activities that they’d see when they go to work in industry at the power reactors — but on a much smaller scale,” Agasie said.

The reactor has resided at UW since 1960. According to Corradini, it received a new license for operation in 2000, so faculty and students will use it until at least 2020.

According to a UW website with information about the reactor, it has been used for purposes as diverse as irradiating heart stents and performing trace element detection services to aid archaeologists in determining source regions for archaeological samples.

Corradini said uranium comes in three naturally occurring isotopes, but only uranium 235 is used in university experiments. He said an enriched version of the element is necessary to produce the fission process necessary for actual use.

While UW’s nuclear reactor is used for research and education purposes, reactors are used primarily on a global basis in the production of electrical power. Energy is produced through nuclear chain reactions in a process similar to if a nuclear bomb was controlled and executed at a steady rate.

Corradini said they are often used to produce energy in third-world countries.

The DOE will primarily fund the conversion through the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which was founded with the intent to reduce the threat of nuclear and radiological materials in the United States.