ANS Virtual Annual Meeting: Thursday recap

June 11, 2020, 10:55PMNuclear News

Robotics and Remote Systems

The session “Robotics and Remote Systems: General” was sponsored by the Robotics and Remote Systems Division and chaired and organized by the RRSD chair, Leonel Lagos, director of research at Florida International University.

In his presentation,

Young Soo Park, program lead of Robotics and Remote Systems at Argonne National Laboratory, discussed the work that his team is doing in developing enhanced teleautonomous robotic systems to better meet the challenges of using robots in real-world nuclear decontamination and decommissioning environments. Park presented the session’s only paper, “Application of Motion Primitives to Train Robotic Behaviors for Nuclear Facility D&D.”

The use of robotic systems in D&D work is not happening as much as expected, Park said. “Mainly because it’s not as easy as you would think,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges in the deployment of robotics for D&D applications.” These challenges include the need to perform complex movements and the manipulation of heavy equipment within hazardous environments that are often difficult to access and have elevated levels of radiation.

In investigating augmented teleautonomy robotic systems, Park and his team found that such systems were unable to easily replicate complex human motions. To overcome these limitations, they adapted an enhanced teleautonomy system that uses machine learning to essentially train robots through human demonstrations. “Instead of explicitly programming the autonomous behavior, we have the human operator perform the task . . . in a virtual environment . . . and by observing it we get the training data and use the motion learning to extract his essential human skills,” he said.

“Once we collect the motion data by the human [operator] we have to turn it into robot skills, called motion primitives,” Park said. This is done by observing the robotic motions from multiple angles and creating statistical models of the many different motions, he said.

Creating motion primitives through human demonstration, Park said, will obviate the need for deliberatively programming autonomous motions. Park added that it is possible to create autonomous motions using only a small number of human demonstrations. “This is very important, as we cannot do thousands of training demonstrations,” he explained. “[The robots] should be able to learn the human skills with a few demonstrations.”

LEU in Space

The panel “ANS Position Statement on the Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Space” wasn’t designed to make a final decision about a potential ANS Position Statement regarding the use of low enriched uranium (LEU) in space. In fact, it was merely the first step of a long process that could result in issuing either a revision to ANS Position Statement 40, Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion Systems, or a new statement altogether.

The need for such a discussion is the result of recent developments in space nuclear technologies that have led to significant debate about the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in space applications.

Moderated by Jeffery C. King, director of the Nuclear Science and Engineering Center at the Colorado School of Mines and sponsored by the Aerospace Nuclear Science and Technology Division, the session brought to light the varying opinions on the subject. In the opening half, each of nine presenters were given five minutes to plead their cases. The session closed with a lively Q&A portion.

Rep. Bill Foster (D., Ill.), a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, opened by saying he supports efforts by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) using LEU. However, he is concerned about NASA’s involvement in the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY (KRUSTY) experiment, which uses HEU. “I understand that it’s easier to use HEU, but when you include in that tradeoff the threats to global security and space security, I think that that shifts the balance the other way,” Foster said.

Lee Mason, deputy chief engineer, NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate, followed by explaining two ongoing projects, including one that involves using nuclear propulsion for manned Mars missions that would enable robust exploration of the planet. NASA is conducting a transportation study on NTP and nuclear electric propulsions. Mason said that the NTP study is focused on high-assay LEU (HALEU) reactor implementation, while the NEP study is evaluating both HEU and HALEU.

Alan Kuperman, the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, explained the U.S. HEU Minimization Policy, which was created in the 1970s and doesn’t allow for any exceptions. That’s why the KRUSTY test in 2018 was so controversial. “The bottom line is HEU space reactors would threaten U.S. nonproliferation policy and could be blocked by Congress or the next president,” he said. “As a result, advocating for LEU space reactors would increase the likelihood of nuclear power in space.”

Frank von Hippel, a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology, suggested that the ANS position should be to support a refocus of the Department of Energy and NASA space-related research and development on LEU designs. In addition, he said it should require proposers of HEU designs to demonstrate first that neither LEU nor solar are workable.

Susan Voss, president of Global Nuclear Network Analysis, advocated for allowing exceptions for HEU use in U.S. policy, suggesting that HEU should be allowed in cases where it is mission-enabling for planetary and deep space missions. She recommended that LEU be used in all designs when feasible.

Paolo Venneri, chief executive officer of Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, said that private industry considerations for designing space fission power systems should include performance, manufacturability, affordability, and commercialization. “Any statement from ANS regarding the use of LEU or HEU should keep these four factors firmly in mind,” he said.

David Poston, leader of the Compact Fission Reactor Design Team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, focused on the disadvantages of using LEU for space reactors. “If a project determines that the benefits of HEU outweigh the costs, risks, and challenges, then they should not refrain from using HEU if they can get concurrence from the regulatory and launch approval authorities,” he said.

Bahvya Lal, a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, said that most experts focus only on one or two issues when they debate the use of either LEU or HEU. Her study looked at systems across eight criteria – performance, safety, security, timeliness, fuel availability, cost, public-private partnerships, and political acceptance. She found that the pros and cons are about equal for using or not using HEU or LEU. “Whether we use HEU or LEU is ultimately a political decision, not a technical one,” she said.

The lightning round concluded with remarks from Leonard Dudzinski, chief technologist in NASA’s Planetary Science Division. He said that his division needs systems that are lightweight and compact to be practical. He advocated for the appropriate use of HEU. “If the U.S. wants to remain on the forefront of space exploration as we currently are, we should not prohibit the use of highly enriched uranium,” he said. “If we do, we are limiting ourselves to smaller numbers of applications.”

The STEM community and politics

The panel session “Why the STEM Community Should Run for Office and How to Do It” was full of useful information about why those nuclear professionals with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) expertise need to run for public office and win.

The session’s panelists expanded their STEM careers through service in local, state, and federal leadership positions as elected officials and candidates for office. The panelists included members from both sides of the political aisle, who came together during the session to support science and the rise of science-literate candidates for public office.

The panelists were Yehudis Gottesfeld, a chemical engineer and a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York; Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and a member of the New Jersey General Assembly; and Eric Meyer, a former political operative and the founder and executive director of the Generation Atomic nuclear advocacy nonprofit. A fourth panelist, Kevin Spears, an IT professional and a city council member in Wilmington, N.C., was unavailable for the session.

The session was sponsored by the Young Members Group and was chaired by William Murray, of GE-Hitachi, and Eric Meyer. Murray also was session organizer,

Murray noted that there is a small number of other Congress members who have a STEM education. “We are dramatically under-represented in the policy space,” he said, adding that technological advancement is at a pace unmatched by any other time in history, but “our laws will lag far behind technology if STEM professionals do not write the laws.”

The American Nuclear Society, Murray said, is acting across all boundaries to support nuclear technology: Scientific policy advising through the ANS Congressional Fellowship; nuclear advocacy through the use of social media, participation at public hearings, and interactions with politicians; technical innovation through simulations, materials research, and VTR development; and nuclear science education through the Navigating Nuclear program, university programs, scholarships and grants, and partnerships with national laboratories. “If we are putting in effort across all these areas, why are we still having issues with policies, politicians, and the general public?” he questioned

Zwicker, a Democrat, is the first and only physicist ever elected to the New Jersey General Assembly. In the history of the U.S. Congress, there have been only three physicists, he said. For his first run for office in 2014 for the U.S. House, for which he garnered 7.5 percent of the vote (which was good, because first-time campaigners who are relative unknowns traditionally get about 1 percent of the vote), his campaign slogan was “Evidence-based decision making.” That slogan carried weight. “Don’t forget, scientists remain one of the most respected professions the general public ever considers,” he said.

In 2017, Zwicker ran for the New Jersey General Assembly and won. He is the chair of the assembly’s Science Committee. “I have hopefully infused evidence-based decision making into everything that I’m doing and everything that the General Assembly is doing,” he said.

Zwicker stressed to “never say anything you don’t believe. The most important thing is to be authentic. That’s what people want.” He said that so much of politics is inauthentic. “If you are your true authentic self, including sometimes saying ‘I don’t know,’ which a politician is never supposed to say—but that’s what a scientist says with ease—that’s more important than anything else.”

Of great importance is to be honest with yourself about why you are running for office, Zwicker said. “Are you running as a nuclear scientist to promote the use of nuclear energy, or you running to represent the people of wherever you’re going to run?” He said that he didn’t run to get to a fusion energy future, but to a non-carbon future. “You also have to be willing to uncouple your professional from your political, unless they are truly one and the same,” he said.

Gottesfeld, who is running as a Republican for the 17th district of New York seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said she got involved in politics when the Indian Point nuclear power plant’s fate was decided by the state. The plant is located in her district. A chemical engineer who has served at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Gottesfeld said her background in nuclear engineering helps her overcome voter skepticism about her age. “The scientific background, the knowledge, and the policy experience are really what ends up speaking for you,” said Gottesfeld, 25. “That’s the factor you have that is above everyone else. And that’s something that we really need in politics now.”

Gottesfeld advises that if a member of the STEM community is running on a platform of clean energy, it’s important to include nuclear energy in the discussion. “We have an opportunity to spread the word about nuclear energy,” she said.

While science is meant to be apolitical, Gottesfeld said that the pursuit of public office is political. “At the end of the day, if you are going to pursue this path, you are running for a political position,” she said. “You do need to take a political position and get yourself informed on what is going on in politics.”

Meyer talked about “a crash course for running for office.” He has worked on three separate campaigns: one a U.S. Congressional campaign, another for a county commissioner, and a third an issue campaign that was electorally focused on family leave. His presentation was on the “nuts and bolts” of running for office, and included information on creating a campaign timeline.

He said that there were two main phases, preparation and execution. The preparation part of a campaign is very important, he said, because “your campaign can be over before it begins if you don’t lay the right groundwork before you make your announcement” to run for office. He said that for a first-time candidate, the announcement “might be the biggest press and media [coverage] that you get.”

The announcement should convey your key messages and “put your best foot forward for potential voters, for potential donors, and for potential volunteers,” he said. After the announcement, it is all about getting in front of as many voters as possible.

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