Innovating Nuclear through an Entrepreneurial Student Prize Competition
Attendees at this Wednesday afternoon session, organized and moderated by outgoing YMG chair (and incoming ANS Board member) Harsh Desai, were treated to a lively discussion about the Nuclear Energy Grand Challenge entrepreneurial prize competition organized by the Energy Impact Center (EIC) and the University of Michigan (UM). Desai welcomed sponsors and organizers of the competition, as well as students from the winning team, to discuss the success and future applications of the competition.
The prize competition’s challenge of “Reimagining Nuclear Waste” asked interdisciplinary teams of UM students to create a business plan proposal that utilized spent nuclear fuel from a commercial source to create a new product or service, with $17,000 in prize money at stake.
The winning team was SustainiUM, a group of five students represented during the session by Jacob Ladd, who holds nuclear and chemical engineering degrees and plans to begin law school at UM in the fall, and Luyao Li, an environmental sustainability graduate student who instigated the formation of the team. Watch this video to learn more about the competition and how SustainiUM designed a business plan to use the heat from spent fuel in dry cask storage at nuclear plants to dry wastewater sludge that can be used as fertilizer.
“We really believe in this idea,” Ladd said. “Nuclear fuel has so much value. We want to connect that valuable product to places where they really need that heat.” They are continuing to work on their concept through Midwest I-Corps.
Todd Allen, chair and professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan, said the prize competition was not just about proving a technical idea, but changing public perception of nuclear waste as well. He believes the students succeeded. He imagines a future when communities recognize the benefits of using heat from spent fuel to such an extent that when the federal government is ready to take that fuel from a plant site, the local community might say, “Could you wait a bit? We’re using it right now.”
Michelle Brechtelsbauer, director of stakeholder relations at the EIC, said that her aim is to “broaden the coalition of stakeholders that we turn to in the nuclear industry.” She and Allen played key roles in organizing the competition, and EIC intends to organize more Nuclear Energy Grand Challenges in the future. Nuclear waste was a perfect topic for the inaugural competition, Brechtelsbauer said, because “it has no clear solution, but a lot of potential.”
After months of workshops, mentoring, planning, and revisions, a team of judges evaluated the submissions based on five criteria: desirability (from the standpoint of a community), technical analysis, customer validation, market strategy, and legal/regulatory evaluation.
Desai served as a judge. “From my side I have to commend every one of the teams for professionalism,” Desai said. “It’s not just about solving the problem, it’s also about community engagement. . . . I would love to see this be implemented at every ANS student section around the country.”
Pitch Your Job
The YMG sponsored a Pitch Your Job session on Tuesday that was cohosted by Alyse Huffman, 2019 ANS Congressional Fellow, and Catherine Prat, incoming YMG chair. The session was inspired by Pitch Your PhD sessions held at other ANS meetings. Five young members competed for bragging rights by “pitching” their job in three minutes using only one slide. First place honors went to Amber McCarthy, and Trey Mason and Julianne McCallum tied for second place.
Contestants were, in alphabetical order . . .
Will Anderson works for the engineering training organization at the Naval Nuclear Labs, providing training and education to new hires. Most of those hires are mechanical and electrical engineers, and Anderson’s job is to teach them about nuclear physics, radiological fundamentals, and health physics. “What I really love about my job is the opportunities to meet people,” he said.
Nathan Huffman talked about his job as an energy industry analyst for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. While he has a background as a nuclear engineer, Huffman now works in FERC’s Office of Enforcement, which monitors energy markets and transaction data to verify that markets are working as they are designed to. “We always hear a lot about how the economics of the nuclear plants are very marginal,” Huffman said, and that was what inspired him to embark on a career that is not typical for those with an engineering or nuclear background.
Trey Mason talked about his job as a risk analysis engineer at Westinghouse. “What is the number one most important word in nuclear?” Mason asked, pausing before providing his answer to the question: “Safety.” That, he said, is basically what probabilistic risk assessment, and his job at Westinghouse, is all about.
Julianne McCallum, a research analyst in the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Policy Development and Public Affairs Division, works on data management and analysis that finds its way into NEI publications and media outlets, including Nuclear by the Numbers, state fact sheets, and NEI’s Twitter account. McCallum enjoys collaborating with her colleagues. “This team really is trying to be at the forefront of change and drive discussion for the industry,” she said.
Amber McCarthy is a nuclear criticality safety (NCS) engineer at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. NCS offers “a really rewarding career” with a constant focus on keeping operations with fissile material subcritical. “At Y-12, we focus on uranium recycling primarily,” McCarthy said, but that’s not all she has worked on. “The KRUSTY technology was actually manufactured at Y-12 for NASA. . . That touched NCS because we actually ran critical experiments on it at the Nevada Test Site.”
Thursday’s technical session program includes a YMG-organized panel discussion on “Why the STEM Community Should Run for Office and How to Do It.” Plan to attend at 12:15 EDT.