To me, West Texas means windmills and oil derricks. The first time I drove west on Interstate 20 through the field of windmills, I felt like a city kid on a field trip to a farm seeing their first cow after eating burgers and steaks all their life. The minimalist landscape makes the tools of extraction and production feel bigger than the most productive refinery in Pasadena. It’s probably the closest thing to life on Arrakis (the planet from “Dune”) that most Texans will ever experience.
In late June, West Texas will get a shiny new tool in its holster: a research facility designed to house a next-generation molten salt nuclear research reactor (MSRR). Named the Gayle and Max Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC), the new building is designed by Parkhill and located on the Abilene Christian University campus; it is a partnership between ACU’s NEXT Lab and Parkhill. Shorthand for Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory, NEXT Lab is an ACU-based research team focused on addressing the world’s demand for energy, water, and medical isotopes.
A modestly sized answer to NEXT Lab’s need for a local research station, the SERC comprises several labs, 28 offices, a high-bay research laboratory designed to house nuclear reactors, and several specialty labs to support the research reactor design and operations. As the on-site reactor is experimental, it will be used for research, development, and education purposes, and its findings will help inform the next wave of nuclear energy. Upon completion, the SERC will provide hands-on research experience to about 60 ACU students on the NEXT Lab team.
MSRRs have been around since the 1960s and are a class of nuclear fission reactors in which the coolant and/or fuel is a molten salt mixture. When nuclear science was still trying Bikini Atoll on for size, we understood a lot more about the low-numbered elements on the periodic table. Water is much easier on the materials used to build nuclear reactors than caustic molten salts, and with the pressing need for nuclear power, the United States made the decision to go full steam ahead with water-cooled nuclear reactors. MSRRs were relegated to research facilities, and without major demand and funding, they got stale.
You may be wondering why a handful of experimental nuclear reactors built over half a century ago have suddenly sprung back into relevance. Some of it has to do with the increasing demand for clean, safe, reliable energy. Other parts of it have to do with a deepened understanding of what were seen, decades ago, as molten salt’s shortcomings. Although molten salt is indeed corrosive, our current manufacturing capabilities give us more confidence in the durability of the materials used in newly constructed facilities.
Without going too far into the intricacies of nuclear science, there are a handful of important things to know about MSRRs. Perhaps most importantly, they are not fundamentally different from typical water-based reactors. All our reactors use fission as the base reaction to generate energy. Everything else can vary, but fission stays the same. Some of the defining characteristics of the proposed MSRR that differentiate it from currently operating power reactors are the fuel configuration and the coolant that it uses. While all operating reactors in the United States use highly pressurized water as coolant, a molten salt coolant can withstand the same thermal load while staying at low pressure, and this is much safer.
“We’re revisiting molten salts now to see if we can make this type of reactor viable for the masses while also reaping all these other benefits,” says Parkhill project manager Brandon Young, AIA. “This building — being very visible — became something of a landmark in our eyes, because the work they’re doing is landmark-type research. It’s signifying a new frontier in clean energy.”
MSRRs can be refueled while running, and desirable isotopes — such as medical isotopes, which are used to treat conditions such as cancer and heart disease — can be filtered out from the molten salt immediately. (For those of you who are rusty on their chemistry, isotopes are atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons. They share almost the same chemical properties but differ in mass and, therefore, in physical properties. Radioactive isotopes are one such variation.) These medical isotopes are arguably the most interesting part of the entire molten salt endeavor. Instead of rapidly decaying isotopes being express-shipped across county and state lines as they travel from one lab to another, on-site MSRRs would enable cancer researchers to study them at the moment of creation. It’s true what they say: One nuclear scientist’s radioactive waste is a doctor’s treasure.
“Tim Head is one of the scientists on the NEXT team,” says Amber Buscarello, AIA, the project architect for the new MSRR. “When he met with representatives of MD Anderson [Cancer Center, to discuss potential future collaborations], he asked, ‘What medical isotopes would you prefer to have?’ MD Anderson gave him generic answers of what they were accustomed to getting. And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. What do you want?’ Because with the new reactor, they can begin the reaction with different elements to end up with different isotopes on the back end. And the medical scientists were stunned because nobody had been able to ask that before.”
Led by Brian Griggs, AIA, Young, Buscarello, and Melissa Walker, AIA, the West Texas-based team of 25 designers took their project brief and got to work. Parkhill and NEXT Lab traded ideas back and forth about their respective disciplines until a final, highly collaborative design emerged. Originally, ACU did not plan on the research reactor building being so visible. During the process of site selection, however, the idea of making this project somewhat of a spokesbuilding for the nuclear energy movement materialized. The final site choice is directly across from the existing ACU campus, heralding the campus’s planned expansion over the next few decades.
With no direct precedents of similar facilities, the architects searched for inspiration along ideological rather than programmatic lines. Several buildings that influenced the final design were civic, setting this West Texas site up as a forum. As the facility would be part of ACU, the directive to educate drove the design. On the exterior, large patterned formliner tilt-wall panels will display simplified nuclear illustrations, shallowly cast into the surface.
“We’re making a safe place for the research to happen while showing visitors the special and innovative work, and they are welcome to witness what’s happening,” says Young. “That’s a fun part of this profession.”
Dubbed “the nucleus” by NEXT Lab scientists, the research bay where the reactor will be stationed makes up the core of this project. Since this is an experimental reactor, scientists at NEXT Lab have been designing the reactor concurrently with the building design and construction. One was not created for the other; they are being developed in tandem. A defining feature of this research bay is the trench for the reactor. Twenty-five feet deep, 15 feet wide, and 80 feet long, the trench was a major consideration during the design phase. The finished result is a compelling mixture of fixed and flexible, space to learn and space for failure-proofing.
The SERC is broken into three segments: public, private, and secured. The difference between private (offices) and secured (labs) is the increased level of safety required to access the guts of the nuclear machinery. The three classifications provide a clear understanding of the way the SERC is organized, with one notable exception: The public space claims an angled staircase that transports visitors upstairs from the lobby into the mainly private second floor for the chance to view the main reactor room from above.
Three different cladding materials hang on the exterior, referencing the three different internal functions taking place on the other side of the envelope. The project is oriented on an orthogonal grid whose rules are broken only by the aforementioned staircase and a second-story exterior wall perpendicular to the staircase. It’s sleek and modern, and it adopts an almost prairie-style horizontal language to hug the West Texas plain. The greatest vertical expression is the reactor room, and even then, the trench buries half its volume in the earth.
For people who are not nuclear scientists, it can be difficult to make sense of the research and discussions surrounding alternative forms of nuclear energy. Memories of nuclear meltdowns are all too numerous in our collective consciousness, thanks to disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. Parkhill and NEXT Lab knew from the beginning that this project would need to play a role in fighting the stigma against nuclear energy, and they share the same excitement about what this new reactor is going to bring to the world. “This truly is a research project,” says Young. “We don’t know everything they’re going to discover yet.”
Anna Cairns graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in political science and in May 2023 with a Master of Architecture, both from Texas A&M University.