A planned $300 million nuclear reactor will make the United States a leader in the use of intense beams of neutrons as research tools, says an official with a government laboratory. The US Department of Energy has received $2.5 million to design the new reactor, which would help scientists learn about the structure and properties of everything from metals and ceramics to human proteins, said Alex Zucker, associate director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The department plans to build the Center for Neutron Research in Oak Ridge, where it has three nuclear facilities.
``It's something that will help us understand the fundamental process of what's going on in certain materials,'' Mr. Zucker said. ``The new center ... will regain for this country the leadership in materials research with neutrons.''
In the experimental reactor, a highly intense beam of neutrons, one of the basic building blocks of atoms, would be aimed at the material to be studied. Most neutrons, which are electrically neutral, pass through target materials, but those that scatter give clues to the material's structure and properties, Zucker said.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory already has the High Flux Isotope Reactor, which has the highest neutron intensity of any reactor in the nation, but the new center would be up to 200 times more powerful, Zucker said.
``There are only a few places in the world that have this type [of] reactor,'' said laboratory spokesman Steven Wyatt. The Laue-Langevin Institute in Grenoble, France, has the most powerful one, but the planned facility here would surpass that, he said.
Continued funding is subject to congressional approval, Zucker said.
``It will take us about four years to do the preliminary research and development, and then we hope it will be working by 1995 or 1996,'' Zucker said. ``From one Congress to the next nothing is sure, but the intent is there'' for continued funding.
Zucker said Oak Ridge, site of the government's Y-12 weapons plant and Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which enriches uranium, was chosen for the project because of its wealth of nuclear physics expertise.
The new reactor would attract scientists from around the world, he said.