A SLOWPOKE nuclear reactor is a Canadian-made research reactor that is present in many universities across Canada and the world. SLOWPOKE is an acronym for Safe LOW-POwer Kritical Experiment, and although it was developed by Atomic Energy of Canada in the 1960’s, it still has many widespread uses today.
Before explaining how a SLOWPOKE reactor works, it is essential that some common misconceptions about this particular type of reactor be cleared up. This type of reactor is classified as a research reactor, which means that it has zero potential to be used as a source of electricity. The power equivalent of this reactor is known as the CANDU, another Canadian made reactor. The purpose for which a SLOWPOKE reactor is used is for the advancement of scientific knowledge. The potential for this type of reactor to cause harm is insignificant. Even if some unscrupulous person wanted to use the Uranium 235 inside the reactor to make a “dirty bomb,” they would have to have a grand total of five SLOWPOKE reactors, and having five in a small enough location that a bomb could be assembled would not only be extremely difficult, but a financial nightmare.
A typical SLOWPOKE reactor, such as the one at the University of Alberta, has two stages to it. The top floor is filled with a computer and spectrometer, as well as a mechanism for sending samples deep into the nuclear reactor.
When one enters the basement level of a SLOWPOKE facility, one beholds a very under-whelming sight. In fact, the reactor’ appears to be nothing more than a large orange box, about 8 feet by 8 feet, with a depth of about a foot. Truth be told, the actual reactor is deep underground, which makes it safe to mill around the orange cover.
When a sample is going to be tested for carbon dating, there is a process that it must undergo. The sample is first placed an a small plastic vial, like the kind that film for cameras used to be stored in. Then the vial is shot through a plastic tube, which goes all the way through the ceiling and floor and into the bowels of the nuclear reactor. The technician then goes and punches in a set amount of time for it to be exposed to the radioactive material. After that time has elapsed, the vial will be shot out again and into a chamber back in the control room on the top level. The onus is then on the nuclear technician to quickly transfer the vial to the spectrometer, where the radiation will be mapped across a range of data points. The computer will then be able to identify which isotope of which element is contained within the sample. It is then possible to trace the isotope back through a half-life chart to determine what the element originally was when it was first created.
Through a combination of advanced radiation techniques and new computer technologies, we are able to better understand what our world is made of. SLOWPOKE reactors are some of the most powerful tools we have for uncovering our past.