Like many soon-to-be high school seniors, Eva Davidson thought she knew what she wanted to be and how to get there. A chance encounter at a college fair altered that path—a change in plans she has never regretted.
Davidson is a nuclear engineer at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A specialist in reactor physics analysis, she is helping DOE’s Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, which is based at ORNL, to extend the lifetime of current reactors. She’s also performing fuel cycle analysis to understand how a transition from current reactors to advanced reactor types could happen.
It is research that is instrumental in keeping nuclear energy a part of the nation’s energy mix. Unless new reactors are built or current nuclear reactors receive license extensions, nuclear power plants will disappear in the United States by 2050. In 2018, nuclear produced about 20 percent of the country’s electricity.
“If we are going to reduce carbon emissions on a global scale, then nuclear has to be a part of the mix,” Davidson said. “The only way to do that and meet our energy needs, whether that’s to function day-to-day or to power our manufacturing sector, is nuclear energy.”
To be a part of the solution—through developing CASL’s high-fidelity modeling and simulation for use with the current reactor fleet and by understanding better how to bring advanced reactors into the mix—Davidson found an appealing research home in East Tennessee.
“I was drawn to ORNL and the Reactor Physics Group because of the breadth of work taking place,” Davidson said. “Even though we don’t think of reactor physics as a broad field, it is at a place like ORNL. And because of that, we interact with a diverse group of people, including industry, academia, regulators, and other national laboratories to help shape the future of nuclear energy.”
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In the early 2000s, Davidson was set on pursuing chemical engineering in college. As a Toronto native, she had her sights set on a couple of nearby universities, but a new school made a quick impression.
As Davidson and her family arrived at a college fair, they met a dean from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology—a school that would open its doors in time for Davidson’s freshman year. The dean asked her plans and what she thought of nuclear engineering. At the time, Davidson knew little about the topic.
“I went back to my high school and told one of my teachers about the experience,” Davidson said. “He said, ‘You know Eva, that’s very interesting. Maybe you should make that your independent study project.’”
Davidson set out to better understand nuclear energy and sent a survey to 30 people, including the dean from UOIT. His response left an impression and an understanding of the importance of nuclear energy. Months later, Davidson became one of the first students at UOIT.
“I have not looked back,” she said. “And because of that choice, I’ve had the most amazing mentors, who have helped me along the way.”
That included her undergraduate mentor, Bill Muirhead. As Davidson completed her undergraduate degree, she planned to stay in the Toronto area and work for a local utility. However, Muirhead suggested Davidson consider graduate school.
She looked at some of the top nuclear engineering programs in the United States. During a tour of the University of Michigan campus and in interactions with her future graduate advisor, Bill Martin, she fell in love with UM’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences.
Although leaving home was not on her wish list, Davidson was convinced it was the right decision, similar to jumping feet first into nuclear energy. She left UM with both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences in 2013.
“From an early age, I had mentors who took me under their wings and exposed me to the idea of science and the opportunities that it presents,” Davidson said. “I’ve found out later in life that many young girls aren’t as fortunate, but between science camps as a kid and college professors who connected me to professionals in science, I’ve been fortunate to find the encouragement I needed to pursue my interests.”
Research that delivers
After finishing graduate school, Davidson landed a postdoctoral position at ORNL and then moved into a full-time research scientist position in 2015. At the lab, Davidson has taken part in projects supporting the conversion of ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor from highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium, analysis for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and radiation shielding calculations for ITER.
Her current focus is centered on CASL’s mission of delivering impactful modeling tools to industry and fuel cycle analysis research that is part of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy-funded Systems Analysis and Integration Campaign.
“With CASL, it is extremely detailed, where we are looking at specific challenge problems that our industry partners have identified as must-haves for modeling light water reactors,” she said. “With the fuel cycle analysis work, it’s a big picture project that gives me perspective on nuclear as a whole. Both are absolutely necessary for the future of nuclear energy.”
Recently, Davidson collaborated with colleagues to help develop ex-core modeling capabilities for CASL’s code suite Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications, or VERA. The tool will allow industry and regulators to efficiently simulate neutron behavior outside of a reactor’s pressure vessel. Like many of the tools found inside VERA, ex-core modeling is another groundbreaking capability that is not matched by anything else found in the modeling and simulation world.
“In being able to model ex-core neutron behavior, we are helping operators know what the exposure is and how that might affect materials and the lifetime of a reactor,” she said. “When you’re able to roll this into the other capabilities of VERA, while also minimizing the amount of computing cores needed to run such simulations, we are providing technology that industry can adopt.”
The Systems Analysis and Integration Campaign has been part of Davidson’s work for six years. The project brings together researchers from a number of national laboratories and universities to analyze various fuel cycle scenarios, such as seeing the United States transition from light water reactors to a fleet of advanced reactors.
Davidson and colleagues at ORNL leverage the fuel cycle modeling code ORION, which was developed by the United Kingdom’s National Nuclear Laboratory, to simulate these scenarios. They then compare their results to their counterparts across the national laboratory system.
“The project is a passion because I get to interact with people at NNL and so many of the other national laboratories,” she said. “It deals with numerous hypothetical questions that need to be addressed to ensure we can adequately meet our energy needs and bring an advanced reactor fleet online.”
Nuclear engineer by day, mom at night
As a mother of a 2-year-old boy and wife of ORNL’s Greg Davidson, she admits to how busy life has become since starting her pursuit of nuclear engineering in 2003. Finding the time to do it all is a challenge.
“I’ve tried to strike a balance between my career and my life at home,” she said. “It’s hard, but I feel lucky to do both and enjoy them along the way.”
She plans to pass along her good fortunes—starting with great mentors in the early 2000s, finding the right fit at UM as a graduate student, and then landing the right opportunity at ORNL—by mentoring future scientists and engineers in the coming years.
“I look forward to working with new scientists and engineers. It has become a passion of mine because of people like Bill Muirhead, Bill Martin, and my managers and colleagues at ORNL,” Davidson said. “This career has been a perfect choice from the beginning. It doesn’t mean there have not been struggles, but I’ve been so fortunate at each step and hope to pay it forward.”
UT-Battelle LLC manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.