Feature Article

Nuclear Education and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States on a wide basis in March of this year, and life as we knew it changed. “Social distancing” and “essential workers” entered the jargon and working from home for many became the norm.

The number of remote meetings skyrocketed, and various companies have seen that business can be conducted without having employees in the office.

For universities, distance learning has been common for a while now, but with COVID it has become essential.

Nuclear News asked some nuclear engineering professors about how their programs have been dealing with the pandemic. We posed three questions and asked for responses to any or all of them:

How has COVID affected your NE program, and what have you learned from the experience?

Has your NE program been able to contribute to your university’s broader COVID response (e.g., through research or volunteer programs)?

What opportunities or challenges do you foresee in the next year for your program and your students?

The following are responses received by NN.

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Nuclear engineering programs: Building the new nuclear workforce

In order to deliver the next generation of nuclear power plants, the nuclear community needs to overcome a number of challenges identified in 2017 as part of the ANS Nuclear Grand Challenges presidential initiative. Knowledge transfer is one of the nine challenges identified. The goal of the challenge is to “expedite updates to the higher education Nuclear Engineering curriculum to better match today’s needs.”

The Nuclear Grand Challenges report noted that “effective means to transfer that knowledge to the newest group of scientists and engineers needs to be developed and implemented. With the advent of new reactor designs and the challenges within materials science to meet the needs of these new designs, the curriculum structure must be reviewed and updated to better meet the needs of industry, suppliers, and research organizations.”

Nuclear engineering programs at universities around the country are integral to training and developing the workforce to implement the next generation of nuclear energy. Nuclear News reached out to several such nuclear engineering departments, asking them to provide our readers with an update on how their unique programs are helping meet this important challenge.

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Inspecting Hidden Areas of Metal Tanks and Containment Vessels or Liners

Figure 1. The Hanford Site in Washington state stores millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste in 28 double-shell tanks. The tanks are buried underground to enhance radiation shielding. The space between the primary tank and the steel liner can be used to allow inspection of the inaccessible regions of these vessels.

Nuclear power plant containment vessels have large, inaccessible regions that cannot be inspected by conventional techniques. Inaccessible regions often are encased in concrete, soil or sand, or hidden behind equipment attached to a wall. Similar constraints affect the inspection of double-shell tanks designed to store nuclear waste, illustrated in Figure 1, that have an inaccessible region at the tank bottom where the primary shell is supported by the secondary shell. Present methods to monitor the integrity of these vessels primarily rely on partial inspections of accessible areas or estimation of corrosion rates; however, these approaches cannot account for nonuniform localized corrosion or cracking.

Savannah River contract awarded to Battelle-led group

A new M&O contract was awarded for SRNL. Photo: DOE

A management and operating (M&O) contract for the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) valued at approximately $3.8 billion was awarded to Battelle Savannah River Alliance (BSRA), a consortium of universities and private firms led by Columbus, Ohio–based Battelle. Awarded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, the cost-plus-award-fee contract will include a five-year base period (inclusive of 120-day transition period) and potential term of up to five more years, for a total period of up to 10 years.

As announced by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management on December 22, the new SRNL M&O contract is expected to enhance the laboratory’s ability to focus on research and development, increase its flexibility to pursue more diversified projects, and attract talent and the involvement of other research and academic institutions in its projects.

BSRA takes over responsibility for the SRNL work scope from the larger Savannah River Site (SRS) M&O contract with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. The transition of the management and operation of SRNL to the new contract will start following issuance of a notice to proceed to BSRA, the DOE said.

Companion to American Nuclear Infrastructure Act debuts

Kinzinger

Doyle

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) last week introduced legislation to help economically troubled nuclear power plants and authorize funding for “nuclear closure communities.”

The Preserving Existing Nuclear Energy Generation Act (H.R. 9015)—introduced in the House on December 17 and cosponsored by Rep. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.)—is a companion bill to the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act (S. 4897), the bipartisan measure introduced in the Senate in November and moved to the Senate floor earlier this month. On December 18, H.R. 9015 was referred to the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

Judge halts Energy Harbor nuclear subsidies

An Ohio court has granted a preliminary injunction that blocks Energy Harbor from receiving the “nuclear generation fund” payments that were set to begin January 1 as part of H.B. 6—the scandal-tainted legislation at the center of an alleged multi-million dollar racketeering and corruption scheme aimed at guaranteeing its passage.

Signed into law by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in July 2019, H.B. 6 established a seven-year program to charge the state’s electricity consumers fees to support payments of about $150 million annually to Energy Harbor, which had announced in March of the previous year that it would be forced to close the financially strapped Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants without some form of support from the state.

ARC-20 cost-share funds go to ARC Nuclear, General Atomics, and MIT

Designs chosen for ARC-20 support could be commercialized in the mid-2030s. Graphic: DOE

The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) has named the recipients of $20 million in Fiscal Year 2020 awards for Advanced Reactor Concepts–20 (ARC-20), the third of three programs under its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). The three selected teams—from Advanced Reactor Concepts LLC, General Atomics, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—will share the allocated FY20 funding for ARC-20 and bring the total number of projects funded through ARDP to 10. DOE-NE announced the news on December 22.

The DOE expects to invest a total of about $56 million in ARC-20 over four years, with industry partners providing at least 20 percent in matching funds. The ARDP funding opportunity announcement, issued in May 2020, included ARC-20 awards, Advanced Reactor Demonstration awards, and Risk Reduction for Future Demonstration awards.

Congress set to pass year-end funding bill

The final text of the approximately 5,600-page Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 was released on December 22. While the timing of final passage is still fluid, the Senate was expected to approve it and send it on to President Trump to sign into law, according to John Starkey, American Nuclear Society government relations director.

Below are some key funding highlights from the legislation pertaining to nuclear energy.

Initial takes on Biden’s pick for DOE secretary

Granholm

Two op-eds published recently discuss president-elect Joe Biden’s pick—former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm—to run the Department of Energy. The first is from Llewellyn King, the creator of The White House Chronicle, and the second op-ed is from Hayes Brown, a columnist for MSNBC.

Both op-eds reach similar conclusions in that they do not see Granholm as the right choice to head the DOE, mainly because “despite its name, dealing with energy production isn’t the Energy Department’s main function,” as Brown points out.

Study completed on BWRX-300 deployment in Poland

The completion of a study assessing the feasibility of deploying a fleet of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s (GEH) BWRX-300 small modular reactors in Poland was announced recently by the Polish firm Synthos Green Energy (SGE).

The feasibility study, which was prepared by Exelon Generation, was not made publicly available by SGE. The study covers the analysis of key aspects of SMR technology implementation, including cost issues, personnel policy, regulatory and security issues, construction models, and operational issues, according to SGE.

SGE is a subsidiary of Synthos S.A., a manufacturer of synthetic rubber and one of the biggest producers of chemical raw materials in Poland. According to SGE, it views SMR technology as an opportunity for the deep decarbonization of Polish industry and the country's heating sector.

DOE issues Versatile Test Reactor draft EIS, confirms INL as its “preferred alternative”

The Department of Energy has begun the environmental review of its proposed Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), releasing a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for public review and comment on December 21. The sodium-cooled, fast-neutron-spectrum VTR is intended to enhance and accelerate U.S. research, development, and demonstration of innovative nuclear energy technologies.

Canada unveils ambitious plan for SMRs

Declaring small modular reactors to be “the next innovation that will help us reach net-zero emissions by 2050,” Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan last week introduced his government’s SMR Action Plan at a virtual event live-streamed on YouTube.

NRC withdraws LLW rule interpretation

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has withdrawn a proposed interpretation of its low-level radioactive waste regulations that would have permitted licensees to dispose of waste by transferring it to persons who hold specific NRC exemptions. “The proposal is being withdrawn based on the NRC staff’s assessment that the proposed changes may not benefit the regulatory framework for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste,” the NRC said in a December 17 Federal Register notice.

After releasing the proposed rule for public comment on March 6, 2020, the NRC received about 200 individual comment submissions and approximately 15,000 form letter submissions, the vast majority of which were in opposition to the proposed rule.

“We have strongly disputed the argument by various groups who misrepresented the proposal as deregulation of radioactive waste disposal,” NRC spokesperson David McIntyre told the Courthouse News Service. “This would not have changed anything, just made an existing case-by-case approval process more efficient.”

Ex-Im Bank, Poland sign MOU on U.S. energy investment

Polish Minister of Climate and Environment Michał Kurtyka (left) and Ex-Im Chairman Kimberly Reed sign an MOU on U.S. energy investment in Poland on December 11. Photo: EXIM

In another sign of U.S. interest in helping Poland develop a civil nuclear power program, the Export-Import Bank of the United States announced last week that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Polish government to promote U.S. energy investment in the Central European nation. (For an earlier agreement, see here.)

The MOU was signed in Warsaw on December 11 by Ex-Im president and chairman, Kimberly A. Reed, and Poland’s minister of climate and environment, Michał Kurtyka, during Reed’s three-day visit to Poland.

The Ex-Im: As the official export credit agency of the United States, Ex-Im provides loans, loan guarantees, and insurance to foreign customers purchasing U.S. exports.

The MOU particulars: The MOU calls for Ex-Im and Poland to “explore and identify potential opportunities for Ex-Im financing and to work together to promote business development opportunities related to strategic energy projects and programs,” according to Ex-Im’s announcement. The agreement includes, but is not limited to, support for projects in nuclear energy, in particular in support of strategic projects under Poland’s nuclear power program, low- and zero-emission technologies, clean energy innovation, and critical energy infrastructure, including cybersecurity solutions.

Feature Article

Nuclear News Asks: Who Inspired You?

This article presents responses from various community members about those who inspired them—or the events or things that inspired them—to go on to have careers in nuclear.

There is an interesting mix of inspirators here, the most prominent being teachers who had lasting effects on their students. There are others who offered inspiration, too, including parents and other family members.

What all the respondents have in common is their inherent drive and love of science and technology to keep nuclear moving forward.

We would like to hear your story. Write in to let us know about it and we will share it within the pages of Nuclear News.

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Energy Sciences Coalition issues letter to Biden’s DOE transition team

The Energy Sciences Coalition (ESC) issued a letter today to the incoming Biden administration’s transition team for the Department of Energy. The ESC is a broad-based group of organizations representing scientists, engineers, and mathematicians from universities, industry, and national laboratories that is committed to supporting and advancing the scientific research programs of the DOE and, in particular, the DOE Office of Science.

NNSA reportedly hacked as part of “extensive espionage operation”

In an exclusive story published yesterday, the news website Politico reports that networks of the National Nuclear Security Administration and other federal entities have been hacked “as part of an extensive espionage operation.”

Citing officials familiar with the matter, the story says that network breaches have been identified at the NNSA’s Office of Secure Transportation (which is responsible for the transport of government-owned special nuclear materials), Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, the Department of Energy’s Richland Field Office, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

According to the story, the hackers are believed to have gained access to the networks “by compromising the software company SolarWinds, which sells IT management products to hundreds of government and private-sector clients.”

New U.S. space nuclear policy released

An artist's concept of a fission power system on the lunar surface. Image: NASA

A national strategy for the responsible and effective use of space nuclear power and propulsion (SNPP)—Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6)—was released by the White House on December 16 as a presidential memorandum.

Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion. Nuclear energy can produce more power at lower mass and volume compared to other energy sources and can shorten transit times for crewed and robotic spacecraft, thereby reducing radiation exposure in harsh space environments. SPD-6 establishes a road map for getting space nuclear systems into service and sets up high-level goals, principles, and federal agencies’ roles and responsibilities.