Drilling for answers: Sandia pioneers nuclear waste disposal techniques

PAT BRADY AND BOB McKINNON look over a state-of-the-art drill bit used in deep boreholes. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Stephanie Hobby

 This month, amid growing concerns over what to do about the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, Nature highlighted a promising concept being developed by Sandia, and the idea could soon become a reality. Early indications are that the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s proposed budget request for FY15 might include $3 million to start a deep borehole disposal demonstration project.

Sandia’s deep borehole disposal design is relatively straightforward: Using existing oil and gas drilling technology, drill a hole 17 inches wide and five kilometers deep in crystalline basement rock, line it with steel, and lower canisters of waste down into a stack two kilometers high. Finally, seal the top three kilometers of the hole with concrete and other materials. Each borehole could store about 400 canisters of waste and all that would be left at the surface is a mound of concrete.

Every year, US nuclear power plants generate roughly 2,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste, and the federal government is obligated by law to find workable storage and disposal solutions. "Right now, that waste is sitting in temporary storage, but Sandia researchers estimate the current and projected inventory of spent commercial fuel from the existing reactor fleet in the US could be stored in fewer than 800 boreholes, and more storage could quickly be drilled as new waste is generated.”

“Unlike a single mined repository that serves the entire US, boreholes are modular, so you could start storing waste in a matter of months, and could do it around the country, perhaps at the site of nuclear power plants, which would reduce transportation costs,” says Pat Brady (6910) who led a three-year LDRD project for further study of deep borehole disposal.  

Sandia researchers say deep boreholes could also be an option for disposing of other high-level radioactive waste that meets the size restrictions. For example, nearly 40 percent of the total radioactivity at DOE’s Hanford Site is concentrated in fewer than 2,000 capsules of cesium and strontium salts, separated from reprocessing wastes during the 1970s and 1980s. Each capsule is less than 9 centimeters across and less than 56 centimeters long, so potentially, a single deep borehole could dispose of all of Hanford’s waste.

Proponents of the concept say it’s permanent, more cost effective, more flexible, and more secure than other available options, and is immune to surface effects, such as water movement and climate change. Furthermore, waste stored at that depth is virtually inaccessible, since only a drill rig could access the canisters, and malicious activity could be spotted by satellite.

Andrew Orrell (6100), former director of Sandia’s Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cycle Programs, has two decades of technical and managerial experience supporting both Yucca Mountain Project and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. He knew that Sandia had the capacity to lead the nation’s discussion on the growing problem of waste disposal, and in 2009, met with Pat, Peter Swift (6220), Bill Arnold (6224), and a few others to discuss further study of deep boreholes and asked the team to produce the first performance analysis of the deep borehole disposal concept, which eventually led to the three-year LDRD. Sandia researchers formed collaborations with the University of Sheffield in England and MIT, which were instrumental to how well the analysis was received. “The team took on the challenge and produced a pivotal report that set the stage for enthusiastic discussions among the waste management community, in the US and abroad,” Andrew says.

An engineered solution

He says one major advantage of boreholes is that they can be engineered, which avoids the costly and time-consuming task of characterizing imperfections found in a natural setting such as a mountain. “The US invested heavily in Yucca, and one third of that spending went to site characterization of a complex natural system. That’s more than the GDP of some countries that have nuclear waste, so we need to find a solution offering high-confidence isolation that can be developed faster and at less cost” Andrew says. “Deep boreholes allow us to design a disposal system that should be faster, cheaper, and better performing.”

In January 2012, with Yucca Mountain essentially off the table and Sandia’s LDRD wrapping up, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended further study of Sandia’s deep borehole disposal design. DOE subsequently invested more than $2 two million in Sandia and its partners to continue studies and develop a full-scale demonstration project. 

The team has studied ways to overcome such technical obstacles as how thermal, mechanical, and chemical processes control borehole stability and fluid transport at 5 km depth. In particular, Sandia scientists had to show that the seals would remain intact over a million years. 

            Peter Swift is the national technical director of DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy Used Fuel Disposition program. DOE is looking at four options as feasible alternatives: mined repositories in crystalline rock, mined repositories in salt, such as WIPP, mined repositories in clay or shale, and deep borehole disposal. “Sandia’s LDRD really did go after the major questions short of testing a demonstration, which is the next step,” Peter says. “The confidence that it’s safe long term will come from a good understanding of material properties at that depth and the behavior of the seal systems installed. We’re also relying on smaller-scale experimental work and modeling studies.”

            Since the initial DOE funding for further study, Sandia received an additional $400,000 to design a borehole demonstration project, which is under consideration by DOE for implementation. In addition, DOE has provided $850,000 per year for Sandia’s partner MIT through a competitively awarded Nuclear Energy University Programs three-year grant.

            “People have been talking about boreholes for the past 30 or 40 years, but nobody has actually done it, so we wanted to provide the technical basis to allow this to be one of the options for consideration,” Pat says, adding that given approval by DOE, work on a demonstration in the US could start as early as a year from now.


-- Stephanie Hobby

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Labs’ human subject studies work having impact on airport security

Though seen here looking at data on a computer, Ann Speed (1463) actually spends much of her time studying humans. A cognitive psychologist by training, Ann’s work is aimed at quantifying human behaviors, an expertise highly valued — and funded — by the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration.   (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Mike Janes

When people think about Sandia’s impact on homeland security, they probably think about breakthrough tools and technologies such as explosive detection devices, chemical and biological countermeasures, border security, and nuclear and radiological security systems.

But, quietly, Sandia has developed a capability in human subject studies that is turning into a game-changer, too.

That’s right: human subject studies. That line of work, says Ann Speed (1463), includes disciplines such as cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience that might seem foreign to the Labs’ engineering-rich landscape and culture. There are two cognition departments at Sandia, 1462 and 1463, that together have 22 technical staff members with expertise in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and computer science.

“Sometimes, we Sandians seem to want to engineer people right out of the equation,” says Ann, who earned her PhD in cognitive psychology from Louisiana State University. “But more and more around the Labs, people are starting to realize that the human element can be just as important as the hardware, software, or engineering.”

TSA projects focus on supervisor pressures, image resolution

Ann’s Sandia work has largely been funded since 2009 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with other funding coming from DHS’s Science and Technology (S&T) directorate.

In the 2009-2010 timeframe, Ann’s now-colleague Andrew Cox (8116) spearheaded a multi-screener experiment that analyzed the effects of transportation security officers (TSOs) getting advice from expert TSOs on the threat status of carry-on bags. Ann led the experiment and was subsequently tapped for a follow-up project that independently manipulated supervisor emphasis on either accuracy or throughput as well as image resolution of screened baggage, and the impact of each on TSOs’ decision-making. The study focused on the question of whether higher resolution reduces the effects of supervisor pressures on TSOs by helping them in the certainty of their decisions.

More specifically, the study asked how such pressures influence a TSO’s decisions. Does the supervisor stress speed and quantity of passengers and baggage screened? Or is he or she more concerned with accuracy of found threats? With image resolution, the questions are similar: How do the varying degrees of image resolution affect the decisions being made by TSOs charged with detecting threats? Does image resolution slow activity at the X-ray station? Does it improve accuracy?

The most recent project Ann and Kiran Lakkaraju (1462) completed for TSA is known as the “lane changing” study, which focused on impacts on threat detection when TSOs are asked to switch between the pre-check (indicated by TSA as TSA Pre√) and standard passenger lanes. TSA Pre√ lanes, introduced only recently by TSA, speed throughput considerably since approved TSA Pre√ passengers are not required to remove shoes or items from their carry-on bags.

 “The interesting question, the one we were asked to examine, was what does it do cognitively to a TSO when he or she switches from the TSA Pre√ lane back to the standard lane, and vice versa?” says Ann. “We know that expectations have an impact on how people make decisions, and that the actual rate of target items in a sample can also impact decision making. So we designed an experiment to independently test the effects of expectations and threat rates.”

Though she can’t reveal any details from the TSA lane-changing study, Ann says a subset of mitigations for what was found are likely going to be rolled out to airports across the country. “It’s really exciting to know that your work has had that kind of impact,” she says. Her earlier work on TSA supervisor emphasis informed some of those mitigations.

Data, data, and more data

The bread and butter of human subject studies is data. As she does with all of her TSA projects, Ann used several computers loaded with software that allowed her to present about a thousand images of baggage to the TSA officers, images captured by actual Smiths Detection AT-2 X-Ray scanning machines used at airport checkpoints. The experiments, performed with between 30 and 200 TSA officers, involve statistical analyses of how effectively the officers identify prohibited items found in some of the images.

 “This kind of data collection and analysis can tell us how officers are making their decisions, how accurate they are, and what the rate of false alarms is,” Ann says. “We’re capturing and analyzing their responses and decision times in different operational environments. In the end, the data inform us and our customer about the factors that impact officers’ accuracy.”

The work, Ann adds, was — and is always — reviewed and approved by Sandia’s Human Studies Board (HSB), by TSA officials, and even by the DHS privacy office.

The success of the previous work has led directly to additional TSA-funded efforts, including a current project that explores how long TSOs can look at scanned images before their performance starts to degrade due to fatigue or other factors. Another project aims to understand the attributes TSOs bring to the table prior to training that may influence their ability to perform duties other than the X-ray interrogation of bags.

 “TSOs serve many purposes, each of which requires different kinds of communication skills,” says Ann. “For instance, there are duties like communicating with passengers about things to divest [laptops, liquids] and communicating with passengers in the event a pat-down is required. They also need to possess the ability to keep passengers calm and compliant while performing the tasks required by the standard operating procedure.

“This work is unusual for Sandia, but the fact is that we’re very good at quantifying human behavior,” says Ann. “Scientists have been doing this for 150 years and have learned a lot about human behavior and how to measure it. We don’t need to put a person in an MRI machine to understand how the brain is producing the behaviors it’s producing.” Instead, she says, psychologists regularly design and execute experiments that offer scientific insight into various behaviors and how they come about.

 “They [the experiments] do have to be pretty clever, though,” Ann reminds us. “Humans are thinking beings who will try to outsmart one another, so we have to be careful about experiment construction and the different variables that go into them. Even the instructions we give subjects can alter the outcome of a study.”

In addition to the increased level of attention that TSA is giving to Sandia in this area, Ann says other organizations have taken notice as well. The Labs recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Paul Allen Institute, for example, and continues to develop relationships with the Department of Defense and others.

It’s also worth noting, Ann says, that all of the Labs’ program management units (PMUs) have funded human subject studies at some level, either as LDRDs or as work-for-others. “Many decision makers across the Labs recognize the ubiquity of the human dimension to our national security missions,” she says.

An external advisory board made up of distinguished scholars, cognition scientists, and others has repeatedly acknowledged that Sandia has a differentiating capability in this area.

 “There is no other place that can do what Sandia can do in the area of human decision-making in high-consequence threat scenarios,” Ann asserts. “We are it.”

-- Mike Janes

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Innovative tech transfer program marks two decades of sharing scientific expertise

Genaro Montoya (7933), ESTT program leader, says a new round of business training is coming up.       (Photo by Linda von Boetticher)

by Nancy Salem

See also: Where are they now: Catch up with four Sandians who took the entrepreneurial plunge

For two decades, Sandians have been able to leave the Labs to start or join small companies knowing they can return, or not. Their work has made a difference. The Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology (ESTT) program has brought Sandia expertise into the private sector, created jobs, and contributed to economic development, a new survey shows.

“This is an innovative tech transfer tool that has endured for 20 years,” says Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology and Economic Development Dept. 7933. “Not only do we have many success stories, but we’ve measured the economic impact, which shows positive benefits to the local community. Furthermore, entrepreneurs who return to Sandia have a new set of experiences that benefit the Labs.”

Take a license, form a company

Thirty-three of the 99 companies involved in ESTT since it was launched in 1994 responded to the survey gauging its economic impact. Respondents said 379 jobs were created by their companies through the program since it began, and that in 2012 they employed 1,550 people at an average annual salary of $80,000. Their 2012 sales revenue was $212 million. From 2008 through 2012, the businesses invested $40 million in equipment and $277 million in goods and services. Two-thirds of them had commercialized a technology as a result of ESTT.

“These are notable numbers and reflect just a third of the companies affected by the program,” Jackie says. “ESTT is a tool Sandia has to deploy technology by giving people an opportunity to take a license and form a company. Four start-ups using Sandia technology licenses came out of the program in the past two years alone, along with a number of company expansions. Of these, three licensed technologies from Sandia.”

Jackie says one of Sandia’s hottest technologies, the medical diagnostic lab-on-a-disk SpinDx, is being commercialized using ESTT. Greg Sommer, a former Sandian who helped develop SpinDx, co-founded and is chief executive officer of Sandstone Diagnostics in Livermore, Calif., which is bringing the technology to market. “The high-tech environment at Sandia is ripe for innovation and game-changing technologies,” he says. “The ESTT program allowed us to launch Sandstone and develop cutting-edge medical products based on technology we originally developed for Sandia’s biodefense missions.”

ESTT encourages researchers to take technology out of the Labs and into the private sector by guaranteeing them reinstatement if they return within two years, and a third-year extension can be requested. The survey shows 145 Sandians have left on ESTT, 62 to start a business and 83 to expand one. Forty-one, or 28 percent, returned to the Labs while 98 left for good. Six are currently on ESTT. Of the 99 companies impacted by the program since 1994, 49 were startups and 50 were expansions.

Of the 145 Sandians who left on ESTT, 27 companies licensed a Labs technology.

More entrepreneurial training

Genaro Montoya (7933), the program leader, says a new round of entrepreneurial training will be offered to support researchers considering ESTT. “Anyone at the Labs can take the training,” he says. “It gives you an idea of what’s involved in starting a small business. We want people to show up and be a part of it.”

Classes, scheduled to begin in early April, will be offered by Technology Ventures Corp. in partnership with Technology and Economic Development Dept. 7933. Topics will focus at first on intellectual property, market validation, and capital sourcing. “You can expect to come away knowing how to protect IP, establish customer demand, and find and engage with sources of financing. Those skills reduce risk and increase chances for success,” Genaro says. “In previous training, Sandia employees wanted to learn how to organize and finance a business to commercialize Sandia technology. We’re really excited about taking key components of the training to a deeper level.”

Looking back at 20 years, Jackie says ESTT has been an important piece of Sandia’s tech transfer and economic development portfolio. “It is still relevant, and has a lot of life ahead,” she says.


Where are they now?  Catch up with four Sandians who took the entrepreneurial plunge

Todd Christenson: A small world

Todd turned his Sandia research into a company that today makes the world’s smallest electromechanical switches. He came to the Labs from the University of Wisconsin in 1995 to work in components. His interest was using metal microfabrication to maintain tolerance in mechanical components at small dimensions.

Todd ChristensonHe worked five years with a group that did microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, for safety and security mechanisms. He later worked in optics, photonics, and electronics, which fit his background in semiconductive physics.

 Todd says he was drawn to ESTT because there wasn’t a MEMS technology in the marketplace for good miniature switches. And there wasn’t one that could make MEMS with high aspect ratio processes. “Those are two distinctive features of the technology our company uses,” he says. “Fabrication is based on metal materials versus semiconductor materials like silicon. And the structures have a relatively large thickness compared to the processes used in fabricating MEMS.”

Todd left on ESTT in 2003 and formed HT MicroAnalytical Inc., licensing Sandia technology. “I wanted to make and sell product,” he says. “The entrepreneurship path that Sandia offered was appealing and the time was right.”

He went to the angel markets and got startup capital, and brought in a business partner. They built a prototype facility and put product demos into customers’ hands. “That built traction and attracted strategic funding from companies that wanted specific devices using the technology,” Todd says.

HT MicroAnalytical has 15 employees and is growing. It partnered a year and a half ago with Rosenberger Inc. of Germany, a MEMS switch manufacturer with a global marketing and distribution network, and built an 18,000-square-foot facility in Albuquerque that can produce about 20 million parts a year. A distribution partnership was formed recently with Coto Technologies of Rhode Island.

HT MicroAnalytical sells to commercial and military customers worldwide. “They range from the medical industry to classic industrial automation,” Todd says. “It’s been hard work, but I never looked back. This was what I wanted to do, to apply technology to help people solve problems.

“If you have a passion to get into the marketplace, to build companies, and employ people, the ESTT path is the best I know of.”

Todd says he continues to work with Sandia researchers through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, which helps small companies get technical support from scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.

“Sandia does some of the best research in the world,” Todd says. “It has the best facilities without any question, and great people. It really is the best place on Earth to work.”


Mary Crawford: A rare opportunity

Mary Crawford Mary (1120) describes ESTT as “an exponential learning experience.” She joined Sandia in 1993 and worked in the field of optoelectronics with a focus on light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. “LEDs were emerging as an entirely new type of lighting envisioned to replace conventional incandescent bulbs,” she says. “Companies around the world were starting to work on this and it was an exciting time. Sandia was also engaging in the technology, given the potential for high energy efficiency.”

Mary left in 2000 to join Uniroyal Optoelectronics in Florida, a startup developing LEDs for commercial lighting. She worked for the company a little more than two years, rising from senior scientist to director of research and development. She had come to Sandia as a post-doc, so Uniroyal was her first experience in the startup business world.

“It was an entirely different environment, much smaller,” she says. “But I liked it. It was a small group intensely focused on the same goal. If one succeeded, everyone succeeded.”

She says she learned a lot by working on the growth of LED materials. “My work at Sandia was on the fabrication of LED devices,” she says. “I now have a much better understanding of how the way one grows the LED materials impacts the device performance.”

She decided in 2002 to return to the Labs. “Sandia wanted me back and there were family considerations as well,” she says. "It made sense to return.”

She continued her work in semiconductors and LEDs, and is now a senior scientist. “Working outside the Labs was a tremendous experience and I’m happy I did it,” she says. “I think it’s a rare opportunity to be able to take that kind of risk and have a safety net. And the experience one gains can be very valuable to Sandia.”


Dan Neal: Millions of eyes

Dan NealDan says it was daunting to start a company after years at Sandia. “Sandia has enormous resources, incredible equipment, and exceptional people,” he says. “It was quite a transition to start with three of us in a small facility with what we could buy at auction.”

He had joined the Labs in 1984 working on high-powered lasers and optics. In the early 1990s he helped develop a sensor for lasers that had commercial applications. He took entrepreneurial training through Technology Ventures Corp. in 1995, found a business partner, licensed wavefront sensor and binary optics technologies from Sandia, and left on ESTT.

His company, Wavefront Sciences, presented at the 1996 TVC Equity Capital Symposium and got an investor. It made a variety of instruments based on an optical sensor that could measure everything from the flatness of a silicon wafer to the characteristics of a human eye. It contracted with the US Navy and Air Force to build systems to measure supersonic seeker windows for wind tunnel testing, and worked with NASA on the James Webb Space Telescope.

“Of all those applications the ophthalmic one had the largest market traction,” Dan says. “We were the first to introduce a commercial product to take eye measurements that could be used to program the laser in Lasik vision correction.”

Wavefront grew from three to 54 employees. It sold in 2007 to Advanced Medical Optics of Santa Ana, Calif., which bought several companies involved in the lasers for Lasik. “They wanted us for the sensor technology,” Dan says.

Abbott Laboratories of Chicago acquired Wavefront in 2009 and renamed it Abbott Medical Optics. It’s still in Albuquerque, and Dan has remained as a research fellow.

“Oh, man, have I ever learned a lot about business,” he says. “My advice to Sandians considering ESTT is take advantage of every bit of business training you can and don’t be afraid of the future. You don’t know what it holds but it will certainly be different. My technology has helped millions of eyes. It’s been extremely gratifying.”


Jim Novak: A full-contact sport

Jim NovakJim, senior manager of Tailored Operational Support Dept. 5950, says ESTT gave him management skills he hadn’t developed as a researcher. He worked on sensing technologies for tech transfer applications after coming to the Labs in 1988.

One project was a sensor that allowed a robotic arm to track the surface of a space shuttle engine and deposit a paste to fill cracks. It was done through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Calif., which was building the shuttle’s main engines.

Jim left on ESTT in 1996 to commercialize the sensors for Rocketdyne. He founded SenSolve in Albuquerque and got a master’s in business administration from the University of New Mexico. “I licensed the technology and learned how to run a business,” he says. “We developed the product — sensors for robots in manufacturing— and raised venture capital.”

But in the end he closed the company, which employed six people at its peak, and returned to Sandia wiser for the experience. “Technology is only part of what people buy. The product needs to solve a customer’s problem, not just be cool technology,” he says. “We had visions of providing full-motion sensing for robots in six dimensions. It turns out the vast majority of robots in manufacturing only need one or two dimensions. Our products were too complicated.”

Jim rejoined Sandia in microsensors product development. What he brought from the private sector was management know-how. Within a few years he was promoted to manager and in 2011 to senior manager. “The marketplace is a full-contact sport,” he says. “You learn to run a company. The experience was extraordinarily interesting and extremely useful. It was a great thesis on top of the MBA in preparing me for management. And I’m absolutely glad I came back. This is a great place.”


-- Nancy Salem

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