TOFE 2020 opening plenary: Looking back and forward

November 17, 2020, 9:31AMNuclear News

Presented as an embedded topical meeting at the 2020 ANS Virtual Winter Meeting, the Technology of Fusion Energy (TOFE) 2020 meeting opened on November 16 with the first of four plenary sessions to be held during the week: “Looking Back and Looking Forward in Fusion.” (TOFE 2020 also features 29 technical sessions through November 19.)

The plenary session, chaired by Savannah River National Laboratory’s Greg Staack, featured two speakers: Melissa Hanson, curator for the Savannah River Site Cold War Historic Preservation Program, and Heather Lewtas, a technical lead for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA)’s Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production program.

SRNL history (1950–2004): With the help of historical photos, Hanson discussed the Savannah River Site’s Cold War weapons production missions and its involvement in the development of peaceful uses for atomic energy, as well as how SRNL—known until 2004 as the Savannah River Laboratory—supported both endeavors.

Hanson began with a review of Cold War–related events in the late 1940s that led the Truman administration to call for a U.S. tritium production site, and continued her way through the decades, noting, among other things:

■ Construction in South Carolina of what was then known as the Savannah River Plant began in 1951, with DuPont as the main contractor.

■ From 1951 to 1955, hundreds of buildings were constructed to support the weapons production mission, as well as five heavy-water reactors. (One of those reactors shut down in 1964, while some remained in operation until 1988.)

■ Construction of the main Savannah River Laboratory building, 773-A, began in 1951 and was completed in 1953. Divided into three main groups—physics, reactor engineering, and separations—the lab’s first mission was to assist the plant’s production of weapons material.

■ In 1953, the lab employed 173 individuals—33 with previous DuPont experience and 60 with Atomic Energy Commission training. By 1955, there were 570 workers on staff.

■ Beginning in the 1960s, the lab expanded into experimental research, including construction of the Heavy Water Components Test Reactor (commonly called Hector); transplutonium programs focused on making americium, curium, and californium; and hot-die-size bonding for reactor elements.

■ By 1962, more than 60 staff members at the Savannah River Laboratory held doctorates, while about 50 held master’s degrees.

■ The 1970s saw the rise of environmental monitoring and improved radiation monitoring at the lab.

■ In the 1980s, plant-wide computer systems were installed. Also, a robotics department was established in 1982, with the goal of making potential contamination work safer.

■ In 1989, the Savannah River Plant went through a contractor change from DuPont to Westinghouse. The mission shifted to environmental management, and the plant’s name was changed to its current moniker.

■ In 1992, the lab was renamed the Savannah River Technology Center, bringing with it a broader scope to the work performed there. New areas of focus were on stockpile stewardship, nuclear materials stewardship, and environmental stewardship.

■ In 2004, the center was rechristened Savannah River National Laboratory. Today, it employs approximately 1,000 workers. Approximately 40 percent of its research staff hold Ph.Ds.

Technology transfer: Lewtas spoke on the transfer of technology into and out of fusion and how that concept could help further the UKAEA’s stated mission: to deliver sustainable fusion energy and maximize scientific and economic impact.

Her presentation gave examples of collaborative technology transfer, including refractory metal manufacturing, high heat flux testing, and potential designs using composites. These collaborations, she said, range across sectors from space/aerospace to motorsports and medical.

Among Lewtas's comments:

■ “The fusion environment creates unique challenges to manufacturing, joining, and testing that need to be overcome," she said, adding, "The Joining and Advanced Manufacturing program within the Fusion Technology Facilities at UKAEA is working on the development and maturation of these critical technologies. This is achieved through an active research program and also in working to transfer technology and expertise both into and out of fusion. While some of the challenges of fusion are unique, there are also commonalities with other sectors, creating the potential to accelerate developments for fusion.”

■ Lewtas said that cross-sector collaboration can work for fundamental research and development, as well as for addressing specific problems. Areas of overlap with other sectors have been identified, focusing on joining, manufacturing, repair, nondestructive testing, high heat flux experiments, and in situ health monitoring.

■ She said that technology transfer into fusion allows a greater diversity of ideas to be brought together and to accelerate the time to a deployable solution through building on work already carried out. "Technology transfer from fusion to other sectors allows us to demonstrate the commercial potential of investing in fusion technologies and how the broader research community and industry can benefit,” she said.

■ Lewtas concluded, “Our approach has been to communicate the challenges of realizing a fusion power plant to a broad audience so that other sectors understand the problems to be addressed. Initially, this means identifying the drivers for research and development in other sectors so that we disseminate information into relevant communities." She noted that there is an increasing drive within funding bodies for evidence of cross-sector collaboration. This can incentivize organizations, she said, to approach the fusion community. "However, this can only happen if they know the challenges the fusion community is facing, and who is out there to approach,” she said.

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