Sandia LabNews

In-House course lets support staff explore nuclear engineering

CRITICAL INFORMATION — Bob Busch, center, a University of New Mexico nuclear engineering professor, goes over features of the Sandia Pulsed Reactor/Critical Experiments (SPR/CX), with Labs contractors Chris Hall (4126) and Cassandra Wilson (1385). Chris and Cassandra were students in a course Busch taught at Sandia over the summer that gave nuclear engineering training to Tech Area V staff who didn’t have that background. (Photo by Shawn Howry)

The people who work in Tech Area 5 share a mission but not a language. “Even though we’re in the same organizations supporting the nuclear weapons complex, we use words differently because we don’t all have the same technical backgrounds,” says Shawn Howry (1382).

Warren Strong, manager of Nuclear Materials Management Dept. 1386, and Dave Wheeler, manager of Nuclear Quality & Requirements Dept. 1382, had talked about the need for differently trained people to understand the fundamentals of nuclear engineering. “We agreed that workers with various kinds of expertise in this division should know more about our product — providing unique radiation environments for materials and systems testing,” Dave says. “We pride ourselves on being a learning organization. We can be more effective if everyone understands something about radiation and nuclear technology.”

  Warren and Dave envisioned a course that would offer nuclear engineering, radiation, and technology training to people without that

educational background. Earlier this year, Dave and Shawn got to work on the idea. Their first stop was the University of New Mexico, where they approached long-time nuclear engineering professor Bob Busch, no stranger to Sandia. He had worked and interned at the Labs dating back to the 1970s.

Busch agreed to teach a nuclear engineering fundamentals course at Tech Area 5 over the summer. It ended up being designed for technical and non-technical people.

“A very diverse group of people showed interest in attending,” Shawn says. “For some it was a refresher on the technical side of nuclear engineering and for non-technical people it was a great experience learning some of the language and giving insight into what they hear and do in their organizations.”

Drinking from a fire hose

The course had 10 two-hour sessions held in Tech Area 5. Busch modified his sophomore-level introduction to nuclear engineering for a wider audience. “It was crammed full of information. At times it was like drinking from a fire hose,” Shawn says. “We wanted a curriculum that would keep the technical people challenged but not overwhelm the non-technical students. Bob tailored the course to a happy medium.”

The class drew a core group of 20 students from nine departments. Four were nuclear engineers. The students were assigned to teams with a mix of technical and non-technical people who got together outside the once-a-week classes to discuss lessons and make sure everyone was keeping up. Team leads helped answer technical questions and provide mentorship. “Having these small teams and being able to interact internally was huge,” Shawn says. “We could help each other answer questions and work things out.”

Among the curriculum topics were Nuclear Reactions, Radioactive Decay, Interaction of Heavy Charged Particles and Matter, Neutron Cross Sections, and Ranges of Betas. There were no tests or grades, and Busch provided problems of different difficulty that let students work at their own level and pace.

Chris Hall, a contractor in Dept. 4126, says he graduated in geosciences 25 years ago, “so it was a bit of a challenge to get back to that type of math.”

“Then the light started to flicker on and stay on,” he says. “It was fun — challenging, but fun.”

Chris says the course broadened his perspective on safety. “I take all the radiation training, but this was much more comprehensive,” he says. “And it was a lot more interesting to understand not just how radioactive material decays but how and why certain isotopes are used for certain experiments, and why certain thresholds can be reached or not reached. It was valuable.”

Jamie Arnold, a mechanical engineer who worked in explosives and rocket testing, recently transferred to Nuclear Engineering & Maintenance Dept. 1385. “My background is technical but didn’t necessarily lend itself to what we do here,” he says. “This course gave me a really good overview and better understanding of what the nuclear engineers can do and why. I was learning from the first day even though I’ve been in engineering my whole career.”

Shawn did not bring a nuclear background to the course. “It was tough, but in a good way,” he says. “It was totally new content outside my profession of organizational learning. Sophomore-level nuclear engineering — it posed challenges for me. But in the end I understood more. It helped me listen differently. We were not expected to be experts, just more knowledgeable about the fundamentals.”

Kelsey Curran, a contractor in Dept. 4126, says she enjoyed digging into the how and why of nuclear reactions. “I’m not a nuclear engineer so it was great to get a more in-depth understanding of that field,” she says. “I came away with a better knowledge base to ask more in-depth technical questions and have a better base for understanding. I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with both academia and other organizations at Sandia to expand my knowledge and understanding of nuclear engineering.”

Stronger relationship with UNM

The course built relationships within and between organizations, Shawn says. “What better way to share what we do than in a class like this where we get together on a regular basis,” he says. “A lot of us interacted but didn’t really know each other. You start putting names to faces and learn more about people across the Labs.”

Warren says the course met his expectations and will help the organization. “We want to reach people in quality assurance, materials management, document control, and other fields so they can feel plugged into the nuclear part of the organization,” he says. “People can be better at what they do if they know more about the end product.”

Dave says a goal of the course was to strengthen Sandia’s relationship with UNM. “There should be a very strong connection between the UNM nuclear engineering program and Tech Area 5,” he says. “This was an opportunity to leverage their skills in teaching and educating our staff.”

The course was successful enough that Warren and Dave say they will look at offering more classes, some more technical and others less. Busch says he would welcome the chance to teach more at Sandia. “It was a great experience, a learning experience,” he says. “This was a different audience for me. They had questions I had never thought about. It was fun.”

The final class featured tours of two nuclear reactors used in research, the Annular Core Research Reactor (ACRR) and the Sandia Pulsed Reactor/Critical Experiments (SPR/CX). Lonnie Martin (1381) at ACRR and John Ford (1381) at SPR/CX talked to and showed the class in detail how the reactors work. “It helped bring together a lot of what we were talking about in the course,” Shawn says. “We were able to place everything in context.”

Jamie says his takeaway was a better understanding of how his group’s work applied to the rest of the Tech Area 5 organization. “I could see the types of things we were designing and maintaining and how that actually makes a difference in the experiments taking place,” he says. “After this course I wondered if maybe I’d chosen the wrong degree. I was surprised at how interesting nuclear engineering could be.”