ORNL is helping to replenish the skills needed to protect the world's nuclear assets.
Dating back to the origins of nuclear power in the Manhattan Project, developing and applying technologies associated with the safety and security of nuclear materials has been a core mission at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At the close of the 1980s, the nature of that mission was in transition. Public alarm following the serious accidents at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactors effectively froze expansion plans for the U.S. nuclear industry. A decade later, arms control treaties and the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated the dismantlement of much of the nuclear weapons stockpile in the former Soviet republics. The impact of these developments on energy policy and geopolitical relationships has been well documented. Less apparent to many was the impact of these changes on the number of safeguards and nonproliferation professionals whose unique skills are critical to maintaining the safety and security of a large and diverse volume of nuclear materials around the world.
During this period when the future of nuclear power was unclear and the nuclear weapons stockpile was diminishing, a large number of engineers, health physicists and other nuclear experts gradually left the field or retired. With limited occupational options, few were trained to take their places. Jim Bogard, a scientist at ORNL's Safeguards Laboratory National User Facility, explains that one result of two decades of attrition is a cadre of safeguards and nonproliferation professionals who today are largely in their 50s and 60s. "We basically are missing an entire generation of workers in the safeguards field," he says.
To the chagrin of many in the nuclear industry, this shortfall coincides with the resurgence of nuclear energy and the emergence of nonproliferation as an issue of worldwide concern. "We see a nuclear renaissance occurring in the power industry," Bogard says. "We also see enrichment facilities being built in a number of countries, some of which are a concern from a proliferation perspective." Add to this the continuing need to dismantle nuclear weapons from the Cold War, and the challenge to develop a new generation of safeguards professionals is clear.
Addressing this challenge is the mission of ORNL's Safeguards Laboratory. The lab was established in 2000 and designated by the Department of Energy as a national user facility in 2004 to provide a range of services, including customized training for integrated safeguards methods, procedures, and instrumentation; hands-on testing of nuclear materials; and calibration of radiation measurement equipment. The lab is equipped with a world-class suite of instruments used to measure nuclear materials in safeguard and nonproliferation settings. The facility is among only a few in America that provide a wide range of "reference samples" of nuclear materials. These sealed and closely controlled samples enable users to complete training exercises, calibrate instruments and conduct experimental activities using actual nuclear material.
Safeguards Laboratory staff members represent a diverse collection of internationally recognized nuclear engineers, certified health physicists and experts in the fields of nondestructive analysis and international safeguards. Facility users include students studying safeguards technologies and schemes. The facility also hosts users from private industry, foreign countries, and a variety of federal agencies and research laboratories.
"Physics for Feds"
Among the primary missions of the Safeguards Lab is to provide increasingly popular hands-on classroom and laboratory training in a range of areas related to the monitoring and characterization of nuclear materials. Because the lab's expertise attracts the interest of users in far-flung places, classes are sometimes taken on the road, both in and outside the United States. As ORNL's user program has broadened its capabilities, interest from the academic community has increased. In response to the growing demand for workers with expertise in safeguards technologies, a growing number of universities have created graduate programs with courses of study in nuclear safeguards and nonproliferation. Some of these universities require students to spend at least a week receiving hands-on experience at the Safeguards Lab.
Bogard believes that one of the facility's strengths is the ability to simulate difficult monitoring situations likely to be faced by inspectors in the field. The lab enables students to mock-up a number of scenarios, such as nuclear materials trapped in ductwork or in process equipment, as well as materials enclosed in various types of shipping containers. "Inspectors must know not only how to identify these materials," he explains, "but also how to estimate accurately how much of each material is present." Because the nuclear "reference samples" used in the classrooms or labs are sealed, the training can be accomplished in a laboratory setting that does not require students to be in a hazardous environment or to wear special protective gear.
In addition to providing hands-on classes for students and professionals, the Safeguards Lab also offers a specialized set of courses for federal policymakers. Nicknamed "Physics for Feds," the courses are designed to boost participants' basic understanding of the safeguards field and to provide them with greater understanding of the technical issues surrounding the handling of nuclear material.
The ORNL Safeguards Lab is of particular value to industrial users who have access to a wide selection of reference samples of enriched uranium, as well as a variety of other nuclear materials. "These materials are not available outside of DOE facilities," Bogard says. "Industrial users come to Oak Ridge, for example, to determine whether a software algorithm or a piece of detection equipment performs as expected on actual samples of nuclear material." Andrey Bosko, a researcher with the nuclear measurements company Canberra, says that working with Safeguards Lab reference samples has allowed him to acquire spectral data critical to improving Canberra's detection equipment. "We have software that uses a material's spectrum to tell us how much uranium-235 is in a particular sample. I will be able to use the data gathered here to enhance the software's algorithms, so our equipment will provide even more accurate results."
Other users, like Graham Walford, a researcher for the Fairfield Service Group, are involved in developing measurement methods and techniques used in the decontamination and demolition of obsolete nuclear materials processing equipment. Walford's company is providing technical consulting services to support the removal of Manhattan Project-era structures at the site of the former K-25 uranium enrichment facility, seven miles from ORNL.
"There's a very useful synergy here," Walford says of the Safeguards Lab. "As a measurements person, if I'm having a problem, I find it useful to be able to come here and create an equivalent measurement situation to help resolve the issue. More importantly, there are experienced staff at Oak Ridge to provide peer review on my work. This level of expertise enables users to ensure that they provide the best results possible for the equipment and time available." Walford adds that having access to the Lab's staff and reference standards is critical to producing highly accurate characterizations of radioactive contamination. "If you don't have the reference materials and the people to help use them," he emphasizes, "the result could be huge, consistent errors that could lead to over- or under-estimating the amount of nuclear material involved."
The Safeguards Laboratory is internationally recognized for its expertise in nuclear material measurements, arms control and virtually every aspect of nuclear safeguards and security—both domestic and international. Unlike many of ORNL's user facilities, the lab is not in the business of doing "Big Science." Instead, it pursues a more distinct mission of supporting safeguards and security research and the training of safeguards and security professionals.
With a mission that is narrow and focused, ORNL's Safeguards Lab approaches the future with a clear path forward. America is poised to expand the nuclear industry. Meanwhile, the world remains a dangerous place, made more so by the threat of nuclear proliferation. So long as these two facts define the nuclear landscape, a need will exist for skilled personnel to guide the next generation of nuclear technologies.
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