Sandia LabNews

Science serving others

Engineer employs computer code to mitigate climate change and nuclear energy risks

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LASTING LEGACY — Dave Luxat, left, and his father, John, one of his biggest inspirations. “My dad was a leader in nuclear safety through the development and deployment of nuclear energy technology in Ontario. I grew up inspired by him and his colleagues who worked so hard to leave a lasting legacy for the people of Ontario,” Dave said. (Photo courtesy of Dave Luxat)

Dave Luxat is the epitome of “science serving others.” He is a second-generation engineer who is empathetic that change is hard, cares greatly about climate change mitigation and is passionate about building on the long-standing heritage of engineers and researchers who came before him. Dave said that we have an opportunity to “stand on the shoulders of giants” to make our world better for future generations, and he won’t see the opportunity slip away.

Dave joined Sandia in 2019 and is the manager of Sandia’s Nuclear Energy Safety Technologies department. The department’s preeminent computer code, Melting Core, or MELCOR, is a fully integrated, engineering-level computer code developed for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to model the progression of severe accidents in nuclear power plants. MELCOR’s technology is vital to the future of nuclear power and clean energy because it allows researchers, scientists and community members to better understand benefits and potential risks associated with nuclear power plants.

Dave graduated from the University of Toronto, where he studied engineering science before receiving his doctorate in theoretical condensed matter physics.

Lab News interviewed Dave to hear his perspective on climate change and how Sandia research is making a difference.

Lab News: Why are you passionate about climate change?

Dave Luxat: Climate change presents a fundamental existential risk to our species and our planet. If we don’t address climate change the consequences are dire — all the progress we’ve made as a civilization would end.

LN: What does “climate security” mean to you?

DL: Climate security means that fundamental risk is ameliorated and addressed, and that people in the U.S. and around the world can essentially live in a more secure environment. They have a thriving society, political system and economy, all serving to lift people up and have the opportunity to strive to realize their potential.

I see climate security and national security in a very similar lens — they feed on each other. Without climate security or national security, we see a world in which we have more conflict as people struggle to secure scarcer resources that sustain life. The challenge alone from sudden waves of mass migration can already be seen in the challenges faced by countries around the world. Without climate security, one can certainly envision a world with more destabilized democracies, and nations around the world in conflict with each other.

LN: What climate-related challenge are you most excited to work on?

DL: We have a number of energy-generation technologies that provide us with abundant power but significantly contribute to climate change. While we must address these causes of climate change, we shouldn’t lose the perspective that supplying abundant energy has been vital to enabling so much of our modern, technological society. Replacing these energy technolgoes that contribute to climate change with alternatives that do not provide us with the same energy will slow human progress.

For me, the risk of lost human potential is a tragedy, and we can’t remove that from how we are balancing the choices we must make in this vast transition in our energy system. I fundamentally believe that nuclear energy has proven its ability to deliver abundant energy safely, and it must — with even safer advanced reactors — play a substantial role in addressing climate change.

LN: How does your work at Sandia advance climate security?

DL: MELCOR is an analytical capability that allows us to understand and assess the safety of nuclear power. The safety and continued enhancements of nuclear energy technology are vital to a clean energy future. MELCOR represents a repository of all the research and development that’s gone on through the history of nuclear energy to understand the safety of nuclear energy systems and how they behave under accident conditions. It is a computer program composed of basic science — physics and chemistry — that then allow us to assess how a particular nuclear energy system would behave in the event of an accident.

MELCOR is an enabling technology to help us assess and understand new energy technologies, to ensure that we can develop advanced nuclear energy technologies that help address climate change and to potentially decarbonize our society, without introducing an unacceptable risk to public health and safety.

LN: What perspective or capabilities does Sandia bring to addressing the climate crisis?

DL: Sandia is a systems integration lab. That was our mission from the very beginning for the nation and continues to be our purpose. We don’t necessarily focus on one component, or one technology, or one aspect of the nuclear deterrence mission. We grew up to integrate all of this into a functioning technology to achieve a mission, and that heritage is in the DNA of everybody who works at Sandia.

The safety of nuclear energy technology is about understanding how all the components of the systems work together to ensure safety. You truly can’t understand the safety of a nuclear plant unless you focus on how all its pieces work together to provide that with very high confidence.

LN: What does the nation or world look like in the future if we are successful in addressing climate change?

DL: We would be in a situation where a lot of the stressors that we see driving increased conflict and threats to national security around the world are ameliorated. We could be in a position to reliably roll out abundant energy not just to privileged nations but to developing nations realizing their own clean energy potential. I do not see a world in which we lift up children in the poorest of nations, give them a chance to realize their dreams, if we struggle to provide the energy that ultimately fuels human ingenuity.

LN: What’s your vision for integrating energy equity and environmental justice into Sandia’s climate security efforts?

DL: Nuclear energy technology and other energy technologies are critical when we think about the perspective of environmental justice and energy equity. It’s about access, but more specifically, access to energy that does not displace or harm people, and certainly does not place them at increased risk.

Engineering the next generation of energy technologies that are safer and have reduced risks is critical to ensure we can provide the energy that underpins a modern technological society energy to everyone. We must think about energy justice and energy equity holistically. It’s not just about the technology but about understanding the potential downstream effects of a technology, or a life cycle, and ensuring all potential risks are mitigated. While we can’t ship risk somewhere else on the planet, we also cannot ship risk to a future generation.

LN: If you were trying to recruit or inspire someone to work on the problem of climate change, what would you say to them?

DL: When I started in my engineering program, I recall a banner hanging above the entrance of an engineering building that read, “Science Serving Society.” That has inspired and motivated me ever since. It’s not about finding a better-paying job or chasing titles; it’s ultimately a matter of can I work on something that truly impacts our children, our children’s children, that truly changes the world for the better. Working at Sandia and in the energy programs, we have an opportunity to have a lasting impact on the world.

LN: How can we educate and involve more people in addressing the climate crisis?

DL: It’s about empowering people. Convincing people of the potential value behind clean energy is very hard because they don’t see it in a very tangible way. At an abstract level, we might understand it, but what we tend to see is that there’s this risk of the unknown.

We cannot look at attempts to address the climate crisis as taking things away. Instead, we need to look at it through the perspective of creating opportunities across the board. For example, you can’t go into a coal mining community and say, ‘we are taking your jobs away to close the mine.’ That’s how they feed their families, that’s their community and their identity. Instead, we have to create opportunities in new sectors that people in these communities can realize in the here and now. You simply cannot rob people of a sense of control, independence and purpose. It’s a matter of engaging people in ways that do not rob them of their self-worth while communicating and enacting vital changes. This is why advanced nuclear power plants in former coal mining communities hold such promise. It gives us a chance to provide a large number of middle-class jobs to working families, the kind of jobs that have been key to the stability of our communities and the civic connections vital to maintaining our democracy. We cannot talk about solutions to the climate crisis if we do not first root them in what we have always valued as a country.

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