By Bill Murphy
Sandia and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have enjoyed a long and productive relationship. Today, with a resurgence of interest in nuclear power around the nation, that relationship is poised to become closer than ever, with Sandia supporting the NRC in its regulatory capacity in licensing new US nuclear power plants.
Sandia has supported various NRC offices (Research, Reactor Regulation, etc.) primarily in safety and security research. The Labs’ work has provided vital insights that have helped the NRC develop appropriate rules and regulations for nuclear power plants. In addition, Sandia is now serving as the lead lab for DOE as it seeks certification from the NRC to operate Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository.
Under its new role with NRC, Sandia will be part of an extended team of national labs and private-sector contractors directly involved with NRC’s Office of New Reactors (NRO). They will be involved in certifying new nuclear power plant designs and reviewing license applications for construction and operation. The NRC is funding Sandia’s work at up to $25 million or 60 FTEs over a period of five years, with a possibility of more funding and more work in the future.
According to Tim Wheeler (6764), principal investigator in Sandia’s work with NRO, the NRC anticipates that over the next three years it will receive as many as 18 applications for new nuclear power plants (up to 30 new reactors) — either for design certification or for a combined license, which authorizes construction and conditional operation.
That “tsunami of applications,” as Tim calls it, comes after decades of near-dormancy in the industry. Since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, no US nuclear power plant had been authorized to begin construction. Several plants were already in the construction phase at the time and have subsequently come on line after often protracted legal and political challenges.
Much has changed in the political climate, in the climate of public opinion — and, indeed, in the climate itself — since 1979. In recent years, utilities have again decided that nuclear power is a good bet and are jumping in. And the NRC, sensitive to criticisms going back decades that its licensing process took too long, has pledged to handle this new generation of license applications more expeditiously, says Felicia Durán, a key member of the Sandia team working with the NRC.
The renewed interest from industry and investors toward nuclear power got a significant boost with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was signed by President George W. Bush at Sandia in August 2005. That act, championed by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., includes provisions making nuclear power a more viable option for utility companies than it has been in decades.
NRC’s Office of New Reactors provides a solid regulatory framework to deal with the flood of new applications, says Felicia. NRC has substantially ramped up its own hiring program and is teaming with several national laboratories and some private-sector contractors to facilitate the licensing process. The national labs working with NRC are valued both for their technical competence and because they bring no conflicts of interest to the table, says Felicia.
Each license application is a complex, multifaceted document that spells out in meticulous detail the technical, environmental, and safety aspects of the applicant’s proposal. Each aspect of the application — there are 230 subsections in a typical application, and each will require a technical review — must be evaluated against the standards established by NRC. Currently, Sandia will be supporting two branches of the NRO that together account for 41 distinct review activities. These areas fall under the general heading of “balance of plant,” which encompasses virtually everything but the reactor and its related systems, the nuclear steam supply system, and the emergency core cooling system. Sandia also expects to play a significant role in reviewing these critical systems as NRO’s requirements evolve. Sandia is in discussion with other NRO branches to support additional review activities.
Sandia, Tim notes, brings a broad suite of capabilities to its work with NRC, as well as an unparalleled reputation for delivering impeccable research. The work for NRC, he adds, is a good match for Sandia, advancing as it does a new generation of nuclear power facilities around the country. Those facilities, in turn, advance the nation’s energy security, which is a key element of Sandia’s national security mission.
Tim says his biggest immediate challenge will be assembling a team of Sandians from a broad range of disciplines from metallurgy, geology, and fire safety to human factors, structural analysis, and health physics. Tim says he plans to aggressively seek qualified personnel from throughout the Labs to join the Sandia effort, adding that a number of Sandians who have worked on NRC projects in the past but have moved to other positions are contacting him saying they want to get back on the team.
That doesn’t surprise Tim. “For a lot of us who have worked in nuclear power over the years,” he says, “this is a chance to be in on the ground floor of a new era.” -- Bill Murphy
By Patti Koning
Last month Joe White, Detroit bureau chief and automotive editor for The Wall Street Journal, toured Sandia/California to learn about automotive-related happenings onsite. He wrote about his visit in his Oct. 22 Eyes on the Road column, headlined “Big Brains at Sandia National Lab Tackle the Future of Combustion.”
In that column, White had this to say about Sandia: “To a man and woman, the people at Sandia today are patriots dedicated to making America safer and stronger. Still, the challenge they've undertaken to help free personal mobility from petroleum isn’t so straightforward.”
While at Sandia, White met with Div. 8000 VP Paul Hommert; Terry Michalske, director of Biological and Energy Sciences Center 8300; Jay Keller, manager of Hydrogen and Combustion Technologies Dept. 8367; Bob Carling, director of Physical and Engineering Sciences Center 8700; and Dennis Siebers, manager of Engine Combustion Dept. 8362. He also participated in a video conference on biofuels and the Joint BioEnergy Initiative (JBEI) with Grant Heffelfinger (8330), senior manager of Molecular and Computational Biosciences.
White toured the Micro and Nano Technologies Laboratories, where he discussed storage research with Terry Johnson (8757) and the Metal Hydrides Center of Excellence with Lennie Klebanoff and Ewa Ronnebro (both 8755). Later in the day he visited Combustion Research Facility laboratories, with discussions on homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) led by John Dec (8362); alternative fuels led by Chuck Mueller (8362); and the hydrogen internal combustion engine led by Sebastian Kaiser (8362) and Joseph Oefelein (8351).
“In Joe’s world, everyone is trying to sell a point of view, a product, or a technology. He clearly appreciated Sandia’s ability to provide an unbiased science and technology perspective,” says Mike Janes (8528), public relations officer for the California site. “I expect we'll be seeing and hearing more from Joe in the future.”
White shared his expertise in a talk titled “Green Machines” that focused on the barriers to alternatives to gasoline and internal combustion engines. He noted that in the 20 years he’s spent covering the automotive industry, he’s seen the current trend toward energy-efficient cars come and go several times.
“Every time there has been a spike in energy prices, a conflict in the Middle East, or a surge in environmental sentiment in the popular culture, the automotive industry has responded by throwing open the doors of its R&D labs and showing the wonderful, super-efficient, advanced technology prototypes,” he said. “Then, when the heat goes off, the prototypes go back beyond the curtain and everything goes back to horsepower as usual.”
Right now, all three of the indicators White describes are happening. In his Oct. 22 column, he described this as “a trifecta — an energy-price spike, a Mideast war, and a surge of green consciousness symbolized now by Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize, which presumably will share space in his den with the Oscar for ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”
He concluded that, in his opinion, right now there is a greater willingness to invest in new technology from the incremental to the revolutionary than at any other time in the modern era.
“Sooner or later the auto industry will face enormous pressure because of climate change and the price and scarcity of oil,” he said. “Twenty to 22 miles per gallon as an average is not going to cut it globally.”
The biggest hurdle, says White, is cost. “Old technology is cheap. Car makers will struggle to get over the cost hurdle of truly advanced fuel-saving technology. They will need a boost, either from higher fuel prices or gasoline taxes, or tax policies that make the up-front premiums irrelevant to consumers. None of the Big Three automakers has the capital to take an all-out risk on new technology — they can’t afford to sell vehicles that are too expensive or loaded with challenging, untested technology that is expensive to own and operate.”
But it’s a hurdle that researchers at Sandia are eager to attempt — and the brainpower and resources of Sandia and other national laboratories might just be what it takes. As White wrote in his column, “Maybe it makes sense to have a Manhattan Project to overcome the technical obstacles to wider use of clean fuel technology. Maybe it makes sense to redefine the problem.”
As Sandia celebrates American Indian Heritage Month this November, Labs government relations tribal liaison Laurence Brown (12125) took time to talk to the Lab News about his many roles and responsibilities.
“There are more than 550 federally recognized tribes with 41 of them in New Mexico and Arizona, and I work to stay informed of leadership changes at them as well as to seek collaboration opportunities for Sandia,” says Laurence, a manager in Sandia’s Government Relations Office. “I’m also the point of contact for the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, which means I help ensure implementation of DOE’s American Indian and Alaskan Native Tribal Government policy.”
Over the past five years Laurence has served in the position, the chemical and materials engineer has seen Sandia’s interactions with Native people grow. Today the Labs has memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the Navajo Nation, Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, and the Hualapai Tribe in Arizona. Plus, he interacts with many other Indian groups on a regular basis.
Among his current activities teaming with technical programs are:
The biggest issues that Laurence sees emerging today for the tribes surround water and energy.
Laurence assists Sandia departments either thinking of or just beginning relationships with tribes.
“I try to help the technical program people who will be working face to face with the tribal representatives understand tribal sovereignty, government, culture, and protocols,” he says.
In addition, leadership changes in many tribes every year or two. Among pueblos in New Mexico, many will not permit an individual, who may be a Sandia employee, to turn down an appointment to serve as governor or in another high position. Laurence helps an appointed employee better understand their immediate transition to government service and their return to Sandia through a leave of absence program.
Like many members of Sandia’s American Indian Outreach Committee, Laurence is involved in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), a national organization dedicated to increasing substantially the representation of American Indian and Alaskan Natives in engineering, science, and other related technology disciplines.
Laurence represents Sandia on the AISES Corporate Advisory Council and recruits American Indians to come work at Sandia through the society. He also helped develop a national and internal process for nominating and selecting the AISES Professional of the Year.
Laurence Brown remembers growing up with no electricity or running water
Laurence Brown (12125) understands the need for energy and water in tribal communities. He grew up on the Navajo reservation, 23 miles south of Bloomfield, N.M. There was no electricity, and with no running water, he had to haul water to the house. He herded his grandfather’s sheep and used kerosene lamps for light.
His father died when he was in the third grade, leaving his mother to raise four children by herself. A year before the death of his father, his mother got a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the family moved to a dorm on the BIA campus where Laurence had his first opportunity to live with electricity and water flowing through a tap.
He got his first job in the eighth grade working for local Navajo government. By the time he was 16, he was a welder’s helper in the oil fields.
“I knew I wasn’t going to work in the oil fields the rest of my life and asked myself, what can I do differently?” says Laurence, who speaks Diné, the Navajo language, fluently.
He realized that college was the answer and went to New Mexico State University — paying his way through odd jobs and summer internships at technical companies around the country. After obtaining his BS in chemical engineering, he worked three years at IBM in Tucson. He then came to Sandia where he participated in the Labs’ One Year On Campus program, obtaining an MS in materials engineering from Stanford University.He spent the next 12 years working in thin film, vacuum, and electronic packaging at Sandia, eventually moving into the government relations management position. Laurence misses the technical work but says, “It’s nice to coordinate technology programs with the tribes. There’s a lot of depth and breadth to my job.” -- Chris Burroughs