The President’s Special Session of the 2022 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting in Anaheim, Calif., offered members a chance to revisit the Society’s Grand Nuclear Challenges. Introduced in 2017 and put forth by the members and the ANS professional divisions, the nine challenges identify cross-cutting technical issues to be resolved by 2030 to help address the economic, sociological, or political concerns facing nuclear energy.
While the scope of the session could not include an examination of all nine challenges, the four panelists each took up a challenge topic for discussion as it related to their fields, sharing their views on the progress made in the five years since ANS’s list was first introduced and what actions still need to be undertaken to meet the stated goals.
Low-dose radiation: Amir Bahadori from Kansas State University called the challenge to establish a scientific basis for modern low-dose radiation regulation the most ambitious of all the nine grand challenges—primarily because of all the conflict surrounding the regulation of low-dose radiation protection.
Bahadori said that much progress has been made in the past five years in moving toward a more informed and reasonable discussion of the linear no-threshold model of radiation risk. When it comes to the principle of “as low as reasonably achievable” (ALARA), however, Bahadori said that the concept continues to be misused as a radiation protection tool and more must be done to improve its application.
“ALARA is not minimization and was never intended to be minimization, it is optimization,” he said. “It requires us to consider all the costs and benefits associated with every action taken to incrementally reduce exposure below the limit at hand.”
Radioisotopes: As a senior policy fellow at Argonne National Laboratory, Paul Dickman discussed the grand challenge of ensuring the continuous availability of radioisotopes. Noting the huge role nuclear materials play across many industries, Dickman said that it is difficult to imagine a modern industrial society that does not use radioisotopes.
He explained that since radioisotopes are in demand around the world and only a few countries are able to produce a steady supply, radioisotope availability continues to be an issue needing close attention. This is despite the development of new techniques by U.S. companies such as Shine Medical Technologies, which is using neutron generator technology to produce the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99.
“Russia and China really dominate this market,” he said. “The U.S. program in this area is very small, and it is hard to compete with someone selling an isotope at 10 percent of what it costs you. And that is a real problem for us.”
Fortunately, Dickman said, the U.S. Congress is aware of the problem, and ANS members can help keep awareness of the issue in front of leaders.
Public engagement and knowledge transfer: Alyssa Hayes, a nuclear engineering doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee, discussed the twin challenges of public engagement and knowledge transfer, focusing on actions ANS members can take to advocate more effectively for nuclear technology and increase opportunities in nuclear education.
“Legislators want to hear experts like you who live in their states or their local areas,” she told the audience. “And I know advocacy takes time and effort, but that is why it is so important to have organized advocacy.” Hayes encouraged ANS members to reach out to pronuclear groups, such as Generation Atomic, for help with the organization aspect.
She also noted efforts at the University of Tennessee and other universities to increase diversity and make nuclear education more available to underrepresented people. “The new and young generation of nuclear folks in our community is already diverse, and it is on us to ensure that they have access to all the opportunities for knowledge transfer that we have today, that they continue to have that access, and that we expand it to more people to ensure there isn’t a glass ceiling for them,” she said.
Rejuvenating infrastructure: As the session’s final panelist, Kathryn Huff from the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy shared progress the federal government is making in rejuvenating nuclear technology infrastructure and facilities.
When considering the roles of government and private industry in developing and deploying new and advanced reactor projects, Huff, paraphrasing the author and physicist Amory Lovins, said that the government should steer and not row.
“When we contemplate the impact of [President Biden’s] infrastructure law and what it can do to rejuvenate our infrastructure for nuclear energy, the government is steering this industry, this scientific space, but it is going to take a lot more than just government dollars and government people to move this boat,” she told the audience. “All of you are going to have to help row. All of you will go back from this conference and get back to your experiments, dissertations, companies, and your endeavors, and that is going to be the rowing. And we can’t course correct if we are sitting still.”