Washington State University has been selected to receive four Department of Energy (DOE) grants with a combined value of just over $2 million. The awards will fund vital research into the nuclear fuel cycle, provide a minor infrastructure upgrade at the WSU Nuclear Radiation Center, and foster continued collaboration with two national laboratories.
The awards are part of the DOE’s selective Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP). Established in 2009, NEUP
plays a key role in training and educating “future leaders in the nuclear energy sector while strengthening America’s competitive edge and developing the innovations needed to create new jobs and export opportunities for American-made nuclear technology,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in a press release.
Ahead of the curve
Ten years ago, there were only four graduate students enrolled in the radiochemistry program at WSU. Today, with 30 graduate students, seven prominent faculty members, and an established path for earning reactor operator licenses, WSU is one of the most productive training grounds in the country.
Faculty in the program estimate that in recent years, more radiochemistry Ph.D. students have graduated from WSU each year than from any other U.S. university.
Nationally, however, there is a critical shortage of qualified scientists and operators entering the nuclear energy industry. Researchers and staff trained in America’s nuclear era in the late 20th century are retiring in large numbers and the current supply of trainees will not able to keep up with demand.
“WSU is one of only a dozen or so radiochemistry programs in the country actively engaged in graduate-level training,” said Kenneth Nash, professor of chemistry and primary investigator for two of the 2012 NEUP grants.
Research and collaboration
Nash and his colleague, Nathalie Wall, were each awarded a $900,000 NEUP grant for fuel cycle research and development. Both Nash and Wall are faculty members in the Department of Chemistry
and both are experts in radioactive waste management.
Nash’s research will focus on how to best separate long-lived radioactive isotopes from used nuclear fuel so that they can be returned to the reactor and converted into more manageable, shorter-lived isotopes while also generating additional energy.
Wall will be investigating how specific combinations of geological conditions and man-made repository materials influence the movement of radioactive isotopes from the repository into the surrounding environment.
Both projects have the potential to improve the end stages of the current nuclear fuel cycle in the U.S. and both will involve collaborators at national laboratories.
No substitute for experience
One of the hallmarks of the WSU radiochemistry program is frequent collaboration with premier researchers at national laboratories and nuclear energy facilities in the Northwest and across the country. Students can spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months working on projects in a real-world environment.
In particular, the complementary facilities and expertise available at the nearby Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are a good fit for the WSU program.
Under the NEUP grants, Nash and his students will collaborate with PNNL and Argonne National Laboratory colleagues to test larger and more concentrated radioactive samples than can be handled on the WSU Pullman campus. Research into repository materials by Wall and her students will intersect with PNNL experts in the process of vitrification, or trapping radioactive materials in glass. (A vitrification plant is currently under construction at the DOE Hanford Site near PNNL.)
“They are exceptional scientists and we can combine our knowledge to better understand the chemistry associated with nuclear waste repositories and create better, and safer, solutions for the future,” said Wall.
Unique job opportunities
WSU is also one of the few places in the country where students in any major can earn a nuclear reactor operator license and gain experience with a live reactor at the same time.
Donald Wall, director of the WSU Nuclear Radiation Center
, teaches a rigorous upper-level chemistry course on nuclear reactors that prepares students to pass the formidable federal reactor operator (RO) licensing exam. Alternately, qualified students can work at the reactor facility to gain experience and study on their own for the test. Wall has a cohort of 16 independent students on board for the coming academic year: half are women and only one is a chemistry major.
In the reactor’s 51-year history, a total of 57 operator licenses have been issued at WSU, with 19 awarded in just the past six years. Earlier this year, three students earned their basic RO licenses and an NRC staff member qualified as a senior operator.
The other two NEUP grants will address infrastructure needs at WSU. Donald Wall will lead a $144,000 initiative to improve the monitoring systems of the University’s one-million-watt research reactor, including the addition of a radiation-tolerant underwater camera that will enable researchers and students to run more sophisticated tests. Nash will oversee a $90,000 investment to augment an existing suite of instrumentation used for radioactive materials research.
About the WSU Radiochemistry group
This group of national and international experts is one of the strongest university-based radiochemistry research programs in the country. The proximity to both PNNL and the Idaho National Laboratory offer unparalleled access to experts in all areas of chemistry and provide WSU students with invaluable opportunities to work alongside preeminent researchers beyond the University.
Conducted and directed basic and applied research on actinide and fission product chemistry and chemical separations for 25 years at Argonne National Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey; Fellow of the American Chemical Society; received a $1.4 million NEUP research grant in 2010.
Previously at Sandia National Laboratories working on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant project (the world’s first deep-underground disposal for transuranic wastes) and at the Department for Radioactive Waste Repository at the Comissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA), France; invited speaker at 2010 Pacifichem and other international conferences.
Other radiochemistry faculty members include:
Completed post-doctoral research at University of Zurich; currently investigating targeted radiopharmaceuticals that selectively bind to a unique hormone in cancerous cells.
Selected as a post-doctoral Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory; currently using a novel application of the Google page rank algorithm to predict behavior of water molecules; received a $500,000 NEUP grant in 2011.
U.S. presidential appointment to the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board in 2011; current research focus includes developing methods to quickly identify radioactive materials in environmental samples; Fellow of the American Chemical Society; WSU Regents professor.
Previously at Sandia National Laboratories working on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant project; oversaw conversion of the WSU reactor fuel from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium in 2008 and the recent renewal of the facility’s 20-year federal operating license (2011 to 2031).
Led a large multi-disciplinary research group for high pressure physics at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; US regional editor for the international High Pressure Research journal; associate director of the WSU Institute for Shock Physics.