Monthly Archives: February 2012

Space nuclear propulsion: Humanity’s route to the solar system

Part I:  Space nuclear reactor safety

by Wesley Deason

Though humans have successfully traveled from the earth to the moon, our exploration of the remainder of the solar system has been limited to robotic space probes which, once set in their trajectory, were not designed to return to earth. The data returned from these probes has been of tremendous importance for our understanding of the solar system and regions beyond, but human exploration beyond earth’s orbit remains to be achieved. There are a number of concepts currently under study that would allow us to break out of earth’s gravity well. The most studied and discussed are nuclear electric propulsion and nuclear thermal propulsion. Before I jump into an explanation of those concepts and their respective differences, however, I want to address their similarity: Both are powered by a nuclear reactor.

The primary principle that drives the immense energy production of a nuclear reactor is the process of nuclear fission, in common terms the “splitting of atoms.” This process, induced in uranium through the absorption of a neutron, releases very large amounts of energy when part of the mass of the original uranium atom is converted into energy as the atom splits apart (E=mc2). The fission process also releases additional neutrons that can be used to invoke fission in other uranium atoms. If enough uranium atoms are present, the chain of fissions can be maintained at a steady rate and this configuration of uranium is said to have reached “critical mass.” Extended over a long period of time, this process allows a nuclear reactor to produce large amounts of energy. Fission energy becomes particularly useful and indeed necessary when large amounts of energy are required while availability of fuels or other energy sources is low. With this amazing energy generation capability, however, questions about its safety can, and should, be asked.

Is it safe to launch nuclear reactors into space?

Space reactors must be able to endure specific circumstances that are unique to their transport to outer space. Most importantly, the reactor must remain “subcritical” until required by the mission to commence operation. One classic design requirement for space reactors is that the reactor remain subcritical after a water submersion (a launch accident scenario). Water around a submerged reactor behaves as a neutron moderator, a material which slows fast-moving neutrons. In order to meet this important design criterion, reactors will often contain a material that will absorb moderated or slowed neutrons before they can cause fission in the uranium fuel.

If there were a highly unlikely launch accident in which reactor fuel escaped containment, the environmental effects would remain minimal. Uranium, the fuel that drives modern reactors, is a naturally occurring radioactive element that has a half-life of around 700 million years (for the uranium-235 isotope). This means that it releases energy through radioactive decay at a very slow rate. Also, uranium is an alpha emitter. As discussed in my previous post on plutonium-238, alpha radiation is generally not harmful to humans, provided its emitters are not inhaled or ingested. The more highly radioactive constituents that comprise spent nuclear fuel would not be present before reactor operation commences in space.

Are nuclear reactors dependable and controllable for power generation in space?

To address the controllability and dependability of nuclear reactors, we must consider the methods and physical processes that allow a reactor to be controlled. The main concepts are the effects of negative temperature feedback and the active removal of neutrons through the use of neutron absorbing materials and leakage control.

Core arrangement – Space nuclear power by Angelo & Buden

Negative feedback within a nuclear reactor can come from two main effects, both of which are related to the slowing of the fission chain reaction due to a temperature rise. First is the commonly-known material property of thermal expansion. As a reactor core heats up, it will expand in size, causing the uranium fuel within to spread farther apart and absorb fewer neutrons for fission. Second, due to the neutron absorption properties of nuclei, when the temperature of uranium rises, it is more likely to absorb a neutron but not cause fission. From a safety and control perspective, negative temperature feedback can aid in preventing a reactor from producing too much power and overheating.

There are also methods to actively control a nuclear reactor by removing neutrons from the reactor. These include control rods, drums, shutters, and windows. Control rods and drums use boron, an element with a large neutron absorption ability, to remove neutrons from the reactor before they can cause fission of the uranium atoms. Control rods insert boron directly into the central region of the reactor to adjust power or shut it down. Control drums are a more popular alternative for compact space reactors; the drums contain an absorber section that is rotated towards or away from the reactor to adjust power. Shutters and windows are largely unique to space reactors as they take advantage of the vacuum of space. When these shutters or windows open, they allow neutrons to leak out of the system, thus slowing the chain reaction. These features, along with others specific to a selected reactor design, allow well-designed space reactors to maintain containment of radioactive materials in case of accident.

Kiwi A Prime nuclear thermal rocket built and tested in the 1960s

Nuclear reactors, due to their ability to produce large amounts of energy at any location, will be the required energy source for future human space travel outside of earth’s orbit. Future installments in this series will focus on how nuclear reactors are applied in the two most-studied nuclear space propulsion technologies:  nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion.



Wes Deason is a graduate student in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University working on the safety analysis of vented fuel systems for gas-cooled fast breeder reactors. He is a former summer fellow for the Center for Space Nuclear Research and the current student liaison for the Aerospace Nuclear Science and Technology Division of ANS.

The Mountains of Vermont Yankee

by Meredith Angwin

When I am reading an article or a blog post, I always appreciate when the writer places the immediate events into a bigger context. I always try to do this myself. Putting Vermont Yankee issues in context, however, is like facing a huge mountain range. There is always another set of hills beyond this one. Which mountain? Which context? Where to start?

In this post, I’m going to try to look at the mountain range, instead of the individual peaks. That’s one way to put Vermont Yankee in context. I hope.

The first mountain: Vermont Yankee and the Constitution

When Entergy brought a lawsuit against the Vermont legislature’s attempts to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, it brought the suit on constitutional grounds. It won on constitutional grounds:  The Supremacy Clause (federal law is supreme over state laws) and the Commerce Clause. Two good discussions:

District Court Upholds the Rule of Law by George Angwin

Entergy Vs. Vermont In Plain English by Tamar Cerafici

The mountain behind the mountain: Vermont politics and the Constitution

Entergy won on the basis of the Constitution, but apparently Vermont’s government doesn’t give that much respect to the Constitution. Attorney General Bill Sorrell has brought several other cases challenging the Constitution. He’s lost big-time, and cost the state a lot of money. Although he likes “state’s rights,” he doesn’t pay enough attention to citizen’s rights. He doesn’t adequately protect the rights of ordinary citizens in Vermont.

History of Vermont and the Supreme Court (Constitutional Cases)  by Rep. Thomas Koch

Vermont and personal liberties: Citizen’s Rights, State’s Rights and Vermont by Meredith Angwin

Scaring businesses in Vermont: The third mountain behind the mountain

The Vermont legislature has been on a vendetta against Vermont Yankee, and it hasn’t been particularly nice to other businesses, either. Once you throw out constitutional limits on lawmaking, anything goes. The latest plans include taxing Vermont Yankee to death. Of course, other businesses wonder: What business will be next in line?

Collateral Damage by Jeffrey Lewis

The fourth mountain behind the mountain: Vermont Yankee as cash cow

Vermont Yankee has paid a special tax assessment of $10 million dollars, $8 million of which went to clean up Lake Champlain. Lake Champlain is on the other side of the state from the power plant. This tax was the trade-off the legislature made for allowing Vermont Yankee to have a power uprate. Vermont Yankee has paid $30 million dollars to a clean energy development fund. This tax was the trade-off the legislature made for allowing Vermont Yankee to use dry cask storage.

Vermont claims that the federal government has given them no power over a nuclear plant in their own state. True, the state doesn’t have the power to set safety standards for the plant, but it seems to have done very well at taxing it! All of these special assessments, however, end with the last day of the plant’s current state certificate of public good. That is, the money stream ends on March 21, 2012.

As Emerson Lynn writes: [The legislature] wants it [Vermont Yankee] to go away. But they don’t. It’s their cash cow. 

The Campaign Against Yankee Goes On… by Emerson Lynn

Meanwhile, the legislature’s latest scheme for a new tax, a half-million-dollar per year water discharge tax, has caused even Vermont Yankee enemies to look askance. There is a lawsuit going on. Pat Parentau says: It was not a good idea to pass laws targeting Vermont Yankee in “bad faith” during the state’s legal battle with the company.

Casting a Shadow by Times Argus Online

The final (maybe) mountain way back there in the mountain range: The Vermont energy plan and how it is failing

Perhaps the final mountain in the background is the Shumlin energy plan. When he took office, Gov. Shumlin was shocked that Vermont’s energy plan included Vermont Yankee. In a huge rush, his Department of Public Service put a new plan together without Vermont Yankee. The new plan says that in 2050, 90 percent of the energy used in Vermont will be renewable. Yes, the plan specifies that Vermont will use renewables for 90 percent of pretty much all the energy: Electricity, transportation, and space-heating.

The plan has intermediate goals also, and (surprise) it is failing to meet the first one. The first goal was to have 20 percent of Vermont electricity by renewable power by 2017. It turns out Vermont is going to miss that goal, and the legislature is also backing away from the goal of 30 percent renewable by 2025. These goals just aren’t being met in Vermont. There’s also been a groundswell of people who are worried about escalating power costs.

Vermont is scaling back the drive for renewable power. As Dave Gram writes: Scaling back the drive for renewable power is a big change for a legislature and administration that have been pushing to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and had touted wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources as keys to fighting climate change tied to burning fossil fuels.

Perhaps that scale-back of Vermont’s renewable goals is the final mountain.

Vermont won’t make renewable energy goals by Dave Gram/Associated Press

Vermont needs energy innovation that is realistic, rate-friendly by Bruce Lisman

Or is THIS actually the ultimate mountain?

On a practical basis, the Shumlin energy plan is mostly about natural gas and mid-size natural gas plants. Perhaps the gas pipeline to Canada is the ultimate mountain, the one in the distance that overshadows all the rest.

VPR Shumlin Energy Plan Criticized for Natural Gas Component by John Dillon/Vermont Public Radio



Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents.

Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Registration open for 2012 ANS Student Conference in Las Vegas

The University of Nevada Las Vegas Student Section of the American Nuclear Society will host the 2012 ANS Student Conference on April 12-15, 2012, at the UNLV Student Union.

The conference is the nation’s premier venue for student professional development in nuclear science and technology. Students working in these disciplines gather with industry professionals to share and exchange research and ideas that are critical to the growth of the industry. The conference is an ideal occasion for students to interact with professionals, hear world-class speakers, network with recruiters, and gain real-world perspectives.

Conference participation by students and professionals has surged in recent years. The past two student conferences broke attendance records, with the 2010 conference hosting 665 attendees and the 2011 conference hosting 672. This increasing interest in the conferences provides unique opportunities for industry and academic collaboration and partnership. Integrating the successes of previous conferences with the unique history of Nevada, the conference’s officers hope to continue the trend.

A preview of the 2012 conference:

  • Seminars and workshops – A variety of technical and non-technical sessions focusing on unique topics will be offered throughout the conference.
  • Exhibit fair – The best recruitment and advertising opportunity is the student conference exhibit fair. Interact with more than 500 of the brightest students in the nation.
  • Student research presentations – Students will be showcasing their research through a variety of topic tracks mirroring the ANS divisions.
  • Professional keynote addresses – Talks and presentations from prominent industry professionals and scientists will bring distinct perspectives to the conference.
  • Tours – Come experience Nevada’s rich nuclear history. Tours will be available of the Nevada National Security Site, the Atomic Testing Museum, Varian Medical Systems, and the UNLV science & engineering laboratories.
  • The Atomic Ages Social – Meet up with old friends and make new connections at the 1950s-themed rooftop social on Thursday evening. Dance to your favorite Cold War tunes or pose for a photo in 1950s garb!
  • Closing awards ceremony and banquet - Join us on Saturday night for a truly unforgettable experience.

For more information, visit the ANS Student Conference Web site. Registration is open. Student abstracts are currently being accepted, but hurry as the deadline is fast approaching. We look forward to seeing you in April!

Here is what students had to say about last year’s ANS Student Conference:

The conference committee chairs:

Sherry Faye, General Conference co-chair, is a Ph.D. candidate in radiochemistry who became interested in the nuclear field during a fourth grade field trip to the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant near Oswego, NY. Her current studies involve optimization of a sequential extraction procedure to predict mobility and bioavailability of radionuclide contaminants in soils and sediments. Upon graduation, Sherry would like to continue research in environmental radiochemistry or nuclear forensics at a national laboratory or university.

Vanessa Sanders, General Conference co-chair, is currently a third year Ph.D. candidate in the radiochemistry program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Her current research involves the characterization and crystallization of Re/99Tc-complexes for radiopharmaceuticals. Her interest in radiochemistry began at her undergraduate institution; there she was a part of a group that initiated a bachelor’s degree program in radiochemistry at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Upon graduation, she would like to continue her research of radiopharmaceuticals at a national laboratory or university.

Audrey Roman, Hospitality chair and Section president, is currently in her third year of a Radiochemistry PhD. Her interest in nuclear science started with a summer internship during her undergraduate studies at Idaho National Laboratory studying the FPEX process. After graduation, Audrey would like to follow her interests into nuclear safeguards and reprocessing industry.

Daniel R. Lowe completed his B.S.E in Mechanical Engineering in 2005 from the University of Nevada Las Vegas with a topical specialty in nuclear engineering. He became interested in the nuclear field after his advisor, Dr. William Culbreth, hired him to work in the nuclear field as an undergraduate. From there, he completed his master’s degree in materials and nuclear engineering from UNLV a year later with a focus on radiation transport methods. Daniel plans on finishing his PhD in nuclear engineering from UNLV in May of 2012; his dissertation titled “Radioisotope Production from Linear Electron Accelerators” found alternative and cost-effective ways to produce desired isotopes such as 99mTc from uncommon target combinations.  After graduation, Daniel plans to stay at UNLV for the next few years to help develop the UNLV accelerator program.

Keri Campbell, Finance Committee chair, became interested in the nuclear field while studying the history of Nevada. She is currently a 2nd year PhD student in radiochemistry. After graduation she plans on working for a national laboratory focusing on waste forms and reprocessing.

Janelle Droessler, Marketing chair, is in her second year of graduate study. Her interest in radiochemistry was sparked by an opportunity to conduct her undergraduate senior research in the UNLV radiochemistry labs under the mentorship of a current graduate student. Her research is focused on the direct dissolution of f-elements into room temperature ionic liquid and exploring the electrochemistry for deposition applications. After graduation she intends to pursue a post-doc position at another university or national laboratory.

Corey Keith, Activities chair, is currently in his last year for a M.S. in health physics. His interest in nuclear science was sparked when taking a radioactive waste management and fuel cycle class. After graduating with his M.S. degree, he plans to get his PhD in either nuclear engineering or radiochemistry.

Maryline Ferrier, Catering coordinator, is a 2nd year graduate student in the UNLV radiochemistry PhD program. Her interest for radiochemistry started when she attended classes on the nuclear fuel cycle and radiochemistry given by Dr. Rocca in college in France. Her passion and interest for this field was enhanced when she performed her internship in the reprocessing plant at Areva La Hague. She would like to work in the nuclear field, in a national laboratory to pursue some more research or in industry to work on the applied side of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Balazs Bene, Website coordinator, is a second year radiochemistry graduate student. He became interested in the nuclear field when he took the radiation and environmental protection class of Dr. Zagyvai and Dr. Patzay. Currently he works in Dr. Sudowe’s research group at UNLV. After graduation he would like to pursue a career at one of the national laboratories.

93rd Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers

The Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers is up at Next Big Future

This post is the collective voice of blogs with legendary names which emerge each week to tell the story of nuclear energy.

If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it.

Past editions have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, Idaho Samizdat, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, and CoolHandNuke, as well as several other popular nuclear energy blogs.

The publication of the Carnival each week is part of a commitment by the leading pro-nuclear bloggers in North America that we will speak with a collective voice on the issue of the value of nuclear energy. While we each have our own points of view, we agree that the promise of peaceful uses of the atom remains viable in our own time and for the future.

If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog, and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brian Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival.

# # #

ANS Board Member Steven Arndt named Federal Engineer of the Year

Steven A. Arndt, Ph.D., P.E., cited as best engineer in federal service

American Nuclear Society board member Steven A. Arndt, Ph.D., P.E., has been named the federal government’s Engineer of the Year by the National Society of Professional Engineers. “Steven is an extremely distinguished member of the Society with a long history of exceptional and diverse public service,” said ANS President Eric Loewen regarding the award. “We’re very fortunate to have him on our board of directors and we extend our heartfelt congratulations to him on this well-deserved recognition.”

Dr. Steven A. Arndt and Mr. David L. Skeen, Director of Japan Lessons-Learned Project Directorate, NRC

Arndt, since 2007 a senior technical advisor in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has more than 30 years of experience as a nuclear engineer. Much of his career has been at the NRC, but he also co-founded a business supporting the nuclear community. In addition, he served as a professor of nuclear engineering, including two years at the United States Naval Academy. He was appointed by the governor of Maryland to the Maryland State Board for Engineering. During the Fukushima nuclear event, Arndt responded to the NRC’s Operation Center supporting the Japanese government and the U.S. ambassador’s office in his role as a severe accident analyst. He continues to support the NRC–Japan lessons-learned efforts, including screening and prioritizing recommendations for U.S. nuclear plants.
When asked about the recognition received on Thursday at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Arndt said, “I’ve devoted my professional life to nuclear engineering and I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to make contributions. I’m honored to receive this award.”

Christopher M. Stone, P.E., National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), Dr. Arndt, Mr. Skeen, Lawrence A. Jacobson, executive director NSPE

“Steven is a great example of the dedication and experience of ANS members,” said Loewen. “The country is fortunate to have him acting in a role of such responsibility and importance at the NRC, and we’re fortunate to have him among our membership.”

Christopher Stone, P.E. and Dr. Steven Arndt

For more information about the National Society of Professional Engineers’ awards, please visit the NSPE website.


TVA uses supercomputers to look inside reactors

A partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory will yield results for years to come

By Dan Yurman

Living next door to the most powerful computers in the world offers the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) a unique opportunity to get answers to important questions about its operating nuclear reactors. The utility has multiple reactors at three sites–Browns Ferry (three boiling water reactors), Sequoyah (two pressurized water reactors), and Watts Bar (one PWR). And TVA is having its own mini nuclear renaissance: It completed a reactor at Browns Ferry in 2007, it will complete a reactor at Watts Bar next year, and by the end of this decade, it is likely to be nearing completion of a reactor at Bellefonte.

So where does TVA go when it wants to look deep inside its reactors to help optimize their performance? After all, with billions of dollars invested in these facilities, the utility’s managers want to insure that they get every ounce of performance out of them while securing safe operation in all respects.

The answer is that TVA turns to the Department of Energy-funded Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL) operating at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Rose Montgomery, a project manager and a TVA employee on loan to CASL, says that the primary value in the near term is validation of fuel cycle design and reactor operations computer codes.

This work is consistent, she notes, with the DOE’s objective for CASL, which is to boost reactor reliability and uptime.

“We provide computer simulations that will help TVA achieve reactor power uprates, life extensions, and higher fuel burn-up,” she said.

The CASL project is a mix of scientific research and applied research and development, but that brief summary doesn’t do justice to the objectives the organization has set for itself.

“We are looking for giant strides in computer simulation of phenomena inside a reactor in the areas of thermal hydraulics, fuel rod mechanics, and numerous safety boundary conditions,” she said.

Reactor core simulation Image source: CASL

CASL’s vision is to achieve results. Three broad areas of expected outcomes are defined in its vision statements:

  • Reduced capital and operating costs per unit of energy by enabling power uprates and lifetime extension for existing nuclear power plants and the lifetimes of new Generation III+ nuclear power plants.
  • Reduce nuclear waste volume generated by enabling high fuel burn-up.
  • Assure nuclear safety by enabling high fidelity predictive capability for component performance through failure.

TVA’s work with CASL is based on the assumption that there is industry wide applicability to the modeling and simulation work. CASL is moving beyond a focus on simulating normal steady state reactor conditions.

Its scientists and engineers want to provide insights and enhancements to fuel system design, reactor life extension, accident simulations, and used fuel storage. These are all key issues for a multi-reactor operator such as TVA.

CASL gets data about what’s going on inside TVA’s reactors by collecting operational information and using it in advanced modeling and simulation software that runs on some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers located at ORNL.

Montgomery lists work that has applicability to the U.S. nuclear industry including optimizing fuel efficiency and improving the understanding of fuel performance issues. The six technical focus areas of CASL are:

  • Advanced modeling application
  • Virtual reactor integration
  • Radiation transport methods
  • Thermo hydraulic methods
  • Materials performance and optimization
  • Validation and uncertainty quantification

TVA believes that the CASL program has wide industry applicability in terms of modeling and simulation. CASL is currently focused on the reactor system and nuclear fuel in PWRs. If given more time, however, CASL proposes to move on to simulations of BWRs, small modular reactors, and balance-of-plant systems.

CASL does not expect to license the codes they provide; this will be left up to the utilities and fuel vendors to complete. However, CASL is working to ensure that the codes will be available to industry and will be in a position to be licensed in the future. The project is currently interfacing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, with regular updates on the development progress.

In the short term, TVA expects to see benefits in some aspects of management of core cycle designs and a reduction in some costs related to operating issues such as CRUD deposition. (CRUD refers to tiny, solid, corrosion products that travel into the reactor core, become highly radioactive, and then flow out of the reactor into other systems in the plant.) In the longer term, CASL’s work is expected to result in findings that will be applied to TVA reactors so that they can produce more power.

For more information on CASL, contact them at



Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy, and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

A young girl and high technology

By Jane LeClair

When I was a young girl, I fell in love with science and technology. I was intrigued by famous physicist and chemist Marie Curie and her pioneering research on radioactivity. I wanted to know how such a small piece of uranium could be turned into so much energy. And my curiosity about the nuclear plant that was being built about 50 miles from where we lived only grew as I reached my teens.

My fascination with science was perhaps an unusual passion for a girl at the time. Still, despite the downward pressure that came with trying to navigate a world that pigeonholed women within certain career paths, my passion for science and technology never wavered. In truth, I devoted my life to it, spending nearly two decades in the nuclear industry before leaving for academia and occasionally consulting with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

With changing demographics and retirements, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts increasing demand for engineers. Yet, when I left the field I became just another statistic and part of an alarming number of women (56 percent) who leave the technology fields by mid-career. We’ll need to reverse that trend to fill the labor gap.

This is why the 11th Annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, on Thursday, February 23, is critical in raising awareness of an important issue: Opportunities for women in engineering. Historically, as a professional field, and as a nation that values scientific achievement, we have failed to engage generation after generation of young women—many of whom with a bit of encouragement, mentoring, and most importantly, acceptance could have grown up to lead the next generation of engineers.

The sobering reality is that many young women don’t understand what a career in engineering offers: A creative outlet, great pay, and a chance to positively impact the world. It is a field for the independent thinker, the individual who loves to solve puzzles and find solutions to problems. A career in engineering is also an opportunity to see the world. Throughout my career, I’ve trotted the globe, from Ukraine to Hungary, Sweden to Vienna, visiting nuclear plants and engineering programs and working with the IAEA. I’ve also visited nuclear plants throughout the United States to bring academia and industry together to meet their mutual needs and the needs of our global community.

As a young girl, I never would have dreamed I would be doing what I’m doing. I’ve faced many challenges along the way as I negotiated the glass maze of prerequisite positions, interviews, qualifications comparisons, time in grade, and other confusing practices typical of high-end technology careers. But I am proud of my accomplishments. If it wasn’t for the encouragement of those close to me growing up, and the help of mentors along the way, none of this would have been possible. I know that many of the women engineers I have worked with throughout my career share my sentiments.

Let’s mark Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day by refocusing our priorities and affording all young women of science the encouragement they need to pursue careers in the technology and engineering fields.

Dr. Jane LeClair tells her story of working in high technology:


Dr. Jane LeClair is the Dean of the school of Business and Technology at Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., and an advocate for recruiting and retaining more women in the technology fields. LeClair worked in the nuclear industry for Constellation Energy for 20 years in various management positions. She was involved in a variety of professional organizations, including the American Nuclear Society, where she served as chair of the Education and Training Division, and the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), where she was region chair of the St. Lawrence Section of ASEE. She has worked with the IAEA and has chaired several international conferences and collaborated on numerous projects. She blogs on higher education, online learning, women in technology, the nuclear industry, and her experiences traveling the globe at Café LeClair.

Nuclear energy: The moral choice

By Art Wharton

During the 2011 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, a gathering of ANS members interested in social media and nuclear communications was held, with standing-room-only attendance. As the conversation went around the room, and people discussed their involvement in nuclear communications, a common thread held throughout: The participants felt a moral calling to advance nuclear science and technology through their work, and through their communications via social media. Most participants recounted an obligation that they felt to their community or their family, including the futures of their grandchildren.

Some of these people have been called “industry shills” by those who oppose the continued use of nuclear science and technology for the benefit of society, implying that a pro-nuclear stance is somehow imposed upon someone by the big bad industry tycoons in charge of a vast nuclear conspiracy. The reality is, I have personally met many people who chose to work in the nuclear industry because they advocated nuclear technology, not the other way around. These are the people who are leaders, or will be the future leaders, in the nuclear field.

Speaking of industry leaders, they recently collaborated on the development of the Principles of Conduct for Nuclear Power Plant Exporters. In the preamble, they call out six principles for focus: “Safety, Security, Environmental Protection, Compensation for Nuclear Damage, Nonproliferation, and Ethics.” I’m personally proud to be part of an industry that operates with these core values, and with a sincere feeling of responsibility for their product.

Nuclear professionals live on the same earth as everyone else, so they have a personal stake in utilizing this fascinating technology for the benefit of society, along with strong core values of safety and environmental responsibility. If you’re looking for the moral high-ground in an energy debate, start with advocating the use of nuclear energy.

I originally decided to work in nuclear energy because it was “cool” to me. When I first learned that the energy density of a single fuel pellet equaled almost a ton of coal, I had to learn more. When I was a young boy camping with a Boy Scout troop, they advocated leaving the campground in better condition than we found had it, so the energy density and cleanliness of nuclear energy compared with other energy sources was compelling to me as a young adult. I followed the “cool” path, in my eyes, not realizing at the time that I was making a moral or ethical choice.

That changed in an unexpected way when I graduated college, and I took an oath called The Obligation of the Engineer. At an overwhelming time, in which the excitement of a new career, the largest paycheck of my life, and a cross-country move to a new region were looming, I had an “aha moment” when I took the oath. Many readers of this blog are engineers, and many are not, but I think the oath carries with it a tremendous message worth ruminating on for all nuclear science and technology professionals:

I am an engineer, in my profession I take deep pride.
To it I owe solemn obligations.
Since the Stone Age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.
Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.
Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.
Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experience, my efforts would be feeble.
As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.
As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.
When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.
In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.

- The Obligation of the Engineer

How can you tell if you’re talking to someone who’s taken that oath? Look at the pinky finger of their working hand, and they’ll have a modest, non-descript, stainless steel ring on it. I see many who embody this obligation as they uphold their devotion to safely implementing nuclear science and technology. I think that someone who reads this obligation slowly and deliberately can understand why emotions can run high in a time when nuclear science and technology comes under pressure. I won’t write any ad-hominem attacks on those who oppose nuclear science and technology, because I want today’s topic to be on the ethical and moral obligations we uphold in the nuclear science and technology field. I encourage engineers and non-engineers alike to renew their sense of moral focus on how their day jobs provide benefit to humanity, and to their own community.

Electrical power production provides life-saving opportunities. Refrigeration keeps food safe. Air conditioning saves many from heat stroke during the summer, and heating systems preserve life in the winter. The medical industry is dependent on electricity for many life-saving technologies. As you’re reading this paragraph, you’re probably listing out other things that electricity does to preserve and enhance life in ways that many people take for granted. Nuclear energy provides this life-saving electricity with the smallest footprint per unit of energy, and in my strong opinion, makes “the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.”

I have an obligation to give my knowledge, without reservation, for the public good. Sometimes, I don’t have all the answers. Organizations like the American Nuclear Society can be pivotal in our ability to bring knowledge together. I’ve grown as a person and as a professional from my association and participation in ANS events and governance. If you’re a member of the American Nuclear Society, as I suspect many of you are, you will find that ANS is consistent with this message of moral and ethical behavior as a society and as nuclear professionals. The ANS Code of Ethics gets specific, and the number one practice of professional conduct found in the ANS Code of Ethics is consistent with the rest of the industry:

We hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and fellow workers, work to protect the environment, and strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of our professional duties.

If you browse around the websites of nuclear industry companies, you’ll find that safety and environmental responsibility are consistently called out in their corporate core values. Safety is also the very core of the charter of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Maybe some people can read this and think that we just provide a lot of lip service, and that this is just good PR. Is it? Who pays attention to these things? Do news reporters sift through our corporate values, or Society ethics, or the Obligation of an Engineer before they report the news, or decide which “expert” interviewee to pay more attention to? If they did, I suspect that we’d see different words surrounding “Nuclear” in headlines.

Leaders pay attention to these things. They spend hours arguing over how they want to shape the words to affect the behaviors of the people they lead. They worry about whether they’ve communicated these values often enough, or well enough. If my CEO stopped me in the hallway today and asked me what the company core values were, I could recite them verbatim.

A breach of ethics represents the largest risk we face as we operate, execute projects, or form business deals. I encourage all of you to not only re-familiarize yourself with these values that your employers and your professional societies hold, but to take that confidence with you as you communicate about the benefits of nuclear science and technology. The facts are on your side, the moral high-ground is yours, and the highest standards of ethics and professional conduct will lead you. When in doubt, ask a friend; you have over 11,000 engineers, scientists, administrators, and educators representing more than 1,600 corporations, educational institutions, and government agencies at your disposal here at the American Nuclear Society.



Art Wharton is a principal project engineer at Westinghouse Electric Company LLC in the Nuclear Power Plants product line. He is a member of the ANS Planning committee, the Operations and Power Division Program committee, the Operations and Power Division Executive Committee, is a Pittsburgh Local Section past chair, and is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe. 

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Westinghouse Electric Company LLC.

ANS’s Loewen visits local sections

Eric Loewen, president of the American Nuclear Society, kept up his rapid pace last week as he visited the ANS local section in Aiken, S.C., on February 15, and the one in Charlotte, N.C., on February 16. Loewen, as the featured speaker at the meetings of the two sections, presented his personal talk titled “Plutonium: Promise or Peril”.

During the morning on the 15th, Loewen toured the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility on the Savannah River Site, in South Carolina. The facility,which is being built by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, will convert surplus nuclear weapon-grade plutonium into reactor fuel for use in commercial nuclear power plants starting in 2016. Under a 2000 agreement, the United States and Russia will dispose of 68 metric tons of surplus plutonium, enough material for many thousands of nuclear weapons (see Shaw Areva MOX Services for more info).

Later on the 15th, Loewen was hosted by Stephen Sheetz of the Savannah River National Laboratory for a tour of the lab and other facilities on the Savannah River Site.

At the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility: Zachary Kosslow (ANS), Amanda Bryson (Shaw Areva MOX Services), Eric Loewen (ANS-president), and Kevin Hall (NNSA).


NNSA-MOX Federal Project Director Clay Ramsey illustrates with ANS's Loewen how a fuel pellet boat will be used in the MOX fuel fabrication process.

The dinner meeting that featured Loewen on the 15th was attended by about 160 people. The dinner was hosted by Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, in cooperation with ANS. “Dr. Loewen’s presentation was very well received by all in attendance,” said Amanda Bryson, chair of the Savannah River ANS local section. “The event brought together professionals at all stages of their careers from all over the Central Savannah River Area, representing many facets of the nuclear industry in the area. This was one of the best-attended events for ANS–Savannah River in the past year, and provided the opportunity for lively and thought-provoking interaction among our membership and the membership of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have Dr. Loewen visit.”

The next day, in Charlotte,  Loewen was interviewed on WFAE NPR Radio Charlotte. Click the “Listen” button at the 

WFAE webpage to tune in to the interview via the Comments page, or tune in to the interview directly

Dr. Clint Wolfe (Exec. Dir. CNTA), Dr. Loewen, Karen Bonavita (CNTA)

“Dr. Loewen had over 100 attentive local section members as an audience,” said Thomas Doering, chair of the Piedmont-Carolinas ANS local section, regarding Loewen’s talk in Charlotte on the 16th. “The Peidmont-Carolinas section historically has drawn nearly 100 local members for over two years; the greater Charlotte area is considered the energy capital of the nation. Dr. Loewen’s talk focused on the misconceptions of plutonium and how other energy sources suffered from a similar beginning.”

When asked about his trip, Loewen said, “I’m just so impressed with the vibrancy and vitality of these sections. They really are greater than the sum of their parts, and their parts are pretty great.”

Carolinas Section Officers James Bakke, Thomas Doering - chair, ANS President Loewen, Myron Koblansky, Andrew Sowder.

Nominate Young Members for National Awards!

By Jennifer Varnedoe and Tim Gnadt

Do you know someone who has worked tirelessly toward integrating young members into the American Nuclear Society? Do you know someone in the ANS Young Members Group who has demonstrated continued overall excellence in many areas? Now is your chance to nominate that person for national recognition of their efforts.

We are now accepting nominations for the Young Members Advancement Award and the Young Member Excellence Award. We invite you to submit a nomination for any eligible and deserving member. Anyone can make a nomination, however self-nomination is not permitted. More information about these awards can be found at Young Members Advancement Award and Young Member Excellence Award on the ANS website, along with the nomination forms. Feel free to contact the YMG Awards and Recognition Committee Lead, Tim Gnadt, for more information.

  • Young Members Advancement Award – Honors an individual or group that has made a significant contribution toward integrating young members into ANS.
  • Young Member Excellence Award – Recognizes a member of the YMG who has demonstrated overall excellence in a variety of areas.

These awards are an opportunity to highlight up-and-coming leaders of the society for their encouragement, hard-work, and enthusiasm. One of the most rewarding aspects of my ANS membership is working toward a common goal with people who are amazingly passionate and brilliant. We hope that over the coming years, we are able to recognize all of the exemplary young professionals and mentors whose contributions make ANS the extraordinary organization that it is!



Jennifer Varnedoe is chair of the ANS Young Members Group. She is a project engineer with Advanced Programs at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. She has been an ANS member since 2007 and is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.


Tim Gnadt has been the chair of the YMG Awards and Recognition Committee since January 2011, and a member of the YMG since November 2009. He is active duty in the US Navy and works as an instructor at its prototype training facility in upstate New York.

92nd Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers

This week we’d might as well call the Carnival the “Vermont Yankee” edition because of all the news coming out of that state about this reactor.

Governor Shumlin tilts his lance again announcing an appeal of a Federal District Court ruling against the efforts of the legislature and the governor to shut the reactor down.

The carnival weekly post is the collective voice of blogs with legendary names which emerge each week to tell the story of nuclear energy.

If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it.

Past editions have been hosted at Next Big Future. Yes Vermont Yankee, NuclearGreen, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, Idaho Samizdat, and CoolHandNuke, as well as several other popular nuclear energy blogs.

The publication of the Carnival each week is part of a commitment by the leading pro-nuclear bloggers in North America that we will speak with a collective voice on the issue of the value of nuclear energy. While we each have our own points of view, we agree that the promise of peaceful uses of the atom remains viable in our own time and for the future.

If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog, and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brian Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival.

This Week’s Carnival

Here’s what some of the nation’s nuclear bloggers have to say about Vermont Yankee news generally and CNN in particular.

Yes Vermont Yankee

  • Vermont AG to appeal Federal court ruling – Meredith Angwin writes that yes, we all knew it would happen. The State is appealing the judgment. The State is throwing good money after bad, but Shumlin has to show his hard-core supporters that he really tried.
  • Citizens Rights, State Rights, and Vermont – Everyone knows that the Vermont Attorney General stressed “state’s rights” as he fought Vermont Yankee and two clauses of the Constitution (Commerce Clause and Supremacy Clause).  However, once a state begins defying the Constitution, the rights of the citizens are also compromised.

NEI Nuclear Notes

ANS Nuclear Cafe

On January 19, the Federal District Court in Brattleboro, Vt., issued a court decision in favor of Entergy Corporation, regarding the continued operation of its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.  Howard Shaffer examines the political milieu of the Vermont Yankee court decision in light of states rights issues, shared authority among Federal and State regulators, and the political history of some other rather extreme positions taken by state governors.

Tamar Cerafici has a plain English review of the legal ins-and-outs of the Federal court ruling. It is worth your time to step through the issues because so much is at stake.

Atomic Power Review

Will Davis catches up on various news items from this week, including comments on Fukushima Daiichi, a CNN report, and nuclear energy in various far places in the world.

Next Big Future

Brian Wang reports that the Areva Anteres reactor was selected by the next generation nuclear plant project. Also, he reports on French, U.S., China, India and Ukraine nuclear generation figures for 2011

Idaho Samizdat

Dan Yurman has an indepth report on the selection of Areva’s HTGR design by the NGNP Alliance for process heat applications.

Also, he reports on a major deal involving Areva reactors to be built in the U.K. by EDF as a result of a face-to-face meeting between U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Atomic Insights

Rod Adams writes that MIT’s studies on the future of various energy fuels are important guides for policy makers. The contrast between strong optimism over the future of natural gas compared to a far more pessimistic view of the future of nuclear energy is stark and difficult to ignore.

An explanation might be found in the amount of natural gas money and the number of natural gas salesmen on the Advisory Committee for the study on natural gas when compared to the more neutral funding source for the study on the future of nuclear energy. He asks if the MIT Energy Initiative has been captured by natural gas money?

Nuke Power Talk

Gail Marcus is pleased to be able to pass on information provided by a reader of her blog providing more details on the Japanese personnel practice called ‘amakudari,‘ the institutionalized system of moving Japanese government retirees into positions in the organizations they used to regulate.

Nuclear Diner

Cheryl Rofer has a unique report that Peter Alaric DeSimone tells how he makes music from the random disintegration of radioactive isotopes and provides MP3 files and videos of the process.

Also, she reports that the National Research Council released a report this week on nuclear technologies NASA needs, including nuclear rocket propulsion, nuclear reactors for power in space, and radioisotope power systems. Susan Voss presents the details.

# # #


Czechs temper expectations at Temelin

Europe’s biggest nuclear project is chopped down from five reactors to two

By Dan Yurman

An ambitious plan to build five nuclear reactors in the Czech Republic worth an estimated $28 billion has been scaled back to just two units. The Czech Republic won’t build the other three anytime soon, even though Germany and Poland may have been counting on those units to supply electricity. Germany has closed eight of its oldest nuclear reactors and will close another nine by 2022.

In an unrelated move, Poland just delayed the start date of a new nuclear power station by five years to 2025 three years after Germany has closed its last reactor.

Power that Europe thought it could buy from Czech state-owned utility CEZ has evaporated before it lifted off  the drawing board. The real winner in the short term will be Russia’s natural gas supplier Gazprom.

Newly installed Czech Industry & Trade Minister Martin Kuba down shifted CEZ’s ambitious plans calling the five-reactor plan “unrealistic,” but he did not say what energy mix would be used in its place to meet growing demand for electricity in central Europe. The primary problem likely is how to finance the combination of two new units at Temelin, one at Dukovany, and two more at the Jaslovske Bohunice site in Solvakia.

The Czech government proposed that reactor vendors provide a complete turnkey solution, including up to nine fuel reloads for the new units. As part of the financing, the Czech government would guarantee rates and provide loan guarantees to CEZ as lures to investors.

What may be “unrealistic” is the expectation that investors and reactor vendors would be willing to pump $28 billion into a nuclear power project spread across five new units at three sites.

However, a plan for two reactors worth $10 billion at one site, Temelin, seems more likely to fly, especially since the United States just last week licensed two new reactors planned for the Vogtle site in Georgia said to cost $14 billion.

The Czech energy plan under Kuba’s predecessor, Martin Kocourek, called for up to 80 percent of the nation’s electricity coming from nuclear reactors by 2060 and being a net exporter of electricity to Germany. Kocourek, however, quit in a financial scandal unrelated to his government job. While Kocourek was a stalwart supporter of the five reactor plan, he got into legal trouble in a complicated divorce proceeding in which he hid assets sought by his now former wife in the settlement agreement.  It’s not clear where the money came from. This revelation in his private life made it impossible to continue in a role of public trust.

What’s realistic now?

Now at the helm so to speak, Kuba believes it is realistic to build the next two reactors at Temelin where power transmission infrastructure is already in place. It has approximately 2000 MW at a site near the Austrian border.

Also, Kuba wants to extend the life the reactors at Dukovany, which are four Russian-built VVER designs of about 470 MW each. They were completed in the mid-1980s. The two units at Temelin that are currently in service are also Russian-built VVERs at 963 MW each. These reactors are relatively new, having been completed in 2000 and 2003.

So, where will the money come from for even just two new reactors? CEZ chief financial officer Martin Novak thinks that some form of shared risk with investors will draw them in. Although Novak claims that CEZ is solvent enough to build two units in the range of 1000 MW each out of cash flow, he’d like to leverage other people’s money for about half of the costs.

At a hypothetical cost of $4,000/Kw, the two units would require $8 billion for which CEZ would have to come up with half and then offer the other half to investors. Leveraging support from investors for the nuclear plants will allow CEZ to build other power plants including natural gas.

Another sweetener would be for the government to offer CEZ guaranteed rates of return for the plants. CEZ chief executive officer Daniel Benes said that the way the model would work is that the government would step in with payments if the market price of electricity dropped below a certain level. On the other hand, if the rates increased on their own, the utility might wind up paying the government the difference. In effect, the government would subsidize the rate of return without directly impacting rate payers.

There isn’t agreement on any of these ideas across the government. Some ministers are opposed to any financial support for new nuclear plants.

And here’s a few more ideas

Vaclav Bartuska, the man in charge of the Czech government’s drive to see the plants built, said that having guarantees for power prices in turnkey projects is the only way such massive investments are possible.

Neither CEZ nor the government have explained in detail the extent to which loan guarantees would also be part of the financial package, though Bartuska has mentioned them. If the government offers loan guarantees, it would make the two Temelin reactors more attractive.

Given the shadow of sovereign default that has spread across Europe, however, a government loan guarantee is no longer a punched ticket to financial success. There still would be a risk premium based on how solvent the Czech government is or how well it can convince investor and rating agencies that it is solvent.

And Bartuska isn’t done with ideas about how to get the other three reactors built. His latest brainstorm is to use decommissioned military bases as sites because the government still owns them. He added that the government could use the sites also as interim storage locations for spent nuclear fuel. In any case, the government is worried about a public backlash if it starts demolishing privately held sites for new reactors.

It may get a backlash anyway with its idea for using decommissioned military bases. Now some of the abandoned sites have reverted to the status of de facto nature preserves with wildlife. Green groups are said to want to protect them. However, the military reservations are also contaminated with chemicals and unexploded ordinance. Contracts to clean up the sites are being offered for bid.

Meanwhile, the bidders for the now downsized Temelin project are going ahead with their proposals, which are due next July. These three short-listed bidders are Westinghouse, Areva, and Atomstroyexport. CEZ hasn’t changed the date for the award of the contract, which is early 2013.

All three vendors are inking memorandums of understanding with local manufacturing firms to improve their localization scores with the selection board. CEZ has said that local manufacturing content, and the jobs that come with it, will be an important element of the evaluation regardless of the size of the project.

Poland pushes back plant start dates

Polish state-controlled energy group PGE announced last week that it will delay by five years completion of the first of two new nuclear plants to 2025. The utility did not state a reason for the change in schedule, which was announced as part of the rollout of a larger energy strategy plan. A second unit would come online in 2029. PGE is reported to be aiming at 3000 MW for each site. Each power station could be composed of two to three reactors.

The sites for the reactors tentatively selected include Choczewo, Gaski, and Zarnowiec. Local support for any of the sites may be thin as the country has considerable anti-nuclear sentiment stemming from the Chernobyl accident.

Later this year, Poland will issue a request for proposals for the first unit. So far, GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse have been gearing up their supply chains as part of their planned response. PGE is looking for equity investors in the plants and plans to hold a 51-percent share for each of them.

# # #

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

NOW CASTING: Discovery Channel’s Top Engineer!

Discovery Channel seeks America’s top inventors, machinists, and engineers to compete for a huge grand pr1ze

Televised musical contests like American Idol are no doubt a perfectly suitable route to fame and fortune for many of the talented nuclear scientists and engineers who are avid readers of the ANS Nuclear Cafe.  BUT what if you happen to be a talented nuclear technician, engineer, or scientist who can’t carry a tune? What then?

You may be in luck, dear reader! You may be even more suited to star in the Discovery Channel’s upcoming reality competition: “TOP ENGINEER!”

From the Official Casting Call: “The Discovery Channel is looking for America’s most creative and daring techies, machinists, inventors, and engineers to design, build, and BLAST their way to a Grand Prize.”

From the sound of it, our readers with intimate knowledge of nuclear engineering and technology will clearly carry an advantage in some of the competitions—although using their entire skills set might require special negotiations with the Producer.

So, represent the nuclear community, get out there, and win big! Or at least get on TV, and be sure to put in a plug for nuclear technology while you’re there. Email—click on the picture below for all the info.  Deadline is March 7, 2012.


Lise Meitner’s fantastic explanation: nuclear fission

By Paul Bowersox

On February 11, 1939, a Letter to the Editor titled “Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction” appeared in the science journal Nature. The letter provided the first theoretical explanation for the splitting of the atom, and coined a new term in physics: fission. The woman who co-authored the letter, and co-discovered the power of nuclear energy, is perhaps not quite as well-known as some of her contemporaries. Elise Meitner—how could hers not be a household name?

Meitner was born November 7, 1878, the third of eight children in a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Although she excelled in math and science, at that time and place girls did not attend school past the age of 14. Lise’s parents, however, made sure that their daughters received the same education as their sons, through private tutors. After studying for years to gain entrance at the University of Vienna, Meitner eventually became only the second woman to earn a PhD in physics there.

A battle for the ultimate truth

Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner

Meitner’s nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, said that Meitner’s university teacher, Ludwig Boltzmann, “gave her the vision of physics as a battle for the ultimate truth, a vision she never lost.” Meitner was one of the true nuclear pioneers–her career spanned from virtually the discovery of radioactivity, through to her own co-discovery of nuclear fission, and well beyond. A few years after earning her PhD in 1905 ,she met the research partner that she would work with for 30 years, Otto Hahn, and soon they discovered several new isotopes. In 1917, the duo discovered the first long-lived isotope of the new element protactinium, and in 1922 she discovered the cause for electron emissions from surfaces known as the Auger Effect. From 1924 to 1934, the Hahn-Meitner team became well-known internationally as scientific researchers of the first rank, and were nominated for the Nobel Prize for 10 consecutive years.

A search for new elements

In the 1930s, researchers began to speculate that elements even heavier than uranium—at that time the heaviest known element in nature—might be possible. Such a discovery and achievement would be a sure-fire Nobel Prize winner, and many of the top scientists in the world endeavored to create the hypothetical new element. Hahn and Meitner collaborated in much research toward this end, but history intervened.


Flight from Hitler’s Reich

Meitner converted from Judaism to Christianity in 1908, but in Hitler’s Reich that counted for nothing. Bigotry, racism, and prejudice were translated into government policy by Hitler, and Germany’s takeover of Austria in 1938 brought Austrians like Meitner under German law. She barely escaped with her life, with the help of scientists both within and outside the Reich. But Meitner continued to exchange letters almost daily with her research partner Hahn, who was still inside Germany. But Hahn snuck out of Germany to meet with Meitner to discuss new experiments. Hahn was a brilliant, methodical, and precise chemist, while Meitner was a brilliant theorist attempting to puzzle out his laboratory results. It was a perfect scientific partnership.

A fantastic explanation

At their secret meeting in 1938, Meitner urged Hahn and his laboratory partner Strassman to perform additional tests on neutron-bombarded uranium. Hahn and Strassman finally determined that the end result included the much lighter element barium, not the expected heavy element radium. This was very puzzling. Hahn recognized that uranium atoms completely breaking apart into much smaller atoms would be an explanation, but how could that happen? Hahn wrote to Meitner: Perhaps you can come up with some sort of fantastic explanation. We knew ourselves that [uranium] can’t actually burst apart into [barium].” 

Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, while outdoors skiing, realized Bohr’s “liquid-drop” model of the atomic nucleus could explain the result mathematically. They scribbled formulas on a scrap of paper in the woods:  A uranium atom could elongate when bombarded by neutrons, and occasionally some of the uranium atoms could split apart into two “smaller drops.” In fact, the uranium atoms in Hahn’s experiments had split to form the much lighter atoms barium and krypton, and ejected neutrons and a very large amount of energy, with a loss of some mass. Meitner was the first to realize Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 was at play here, converting mass into energy.

The most deserving scientist never to win a Noble Prize

Hahn published his chemical evidence for fission without listing Meitner as a co-author—understandable, as he was in Hitler’s version of Germany and she was of Jewish heritage. Hahn, however, continued to maintain that he was the sole discoverer of fission, through accepting the Nobel Prize in 1944 and for the rest of his life. Meitner’s explanation for this was that Hahn was “simply suppressing the past (in Nazi Germany). I am part of his suppressed past.” 

The forgotten discoverer, remembered

Although not a Nobel-winner, Meitner was quite famous enough for U.S. President Truman in 1946 to quip, “So, you’re the little lady who got us into all of this!” Meitner and Hahn had little idea that their basic research would turn out to be useful in making weapons of awesome destructive force, however. When asked to join the Manhattan Project in 1943, she replied, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”

Instead of a Nobel Prize, Meitner has been honored with an even more enduring legacy: Element 109 is named meitnerium in her honor.

And since today is Valentine’s Day, allow me to close with a quote from Meitner: “Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep awe and joy that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”  To this author, this reads like a love letter to the universe! Lovely, indeed.



Paul Bowersox is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe, and quite privileged to have the opportunity to write about the work of the nuclear pioneers.

Reflections on the Cedar Creek Room

By Howard Shaffer

On January 19, the Federal District Court in Brattleboro, Vt., issued a court decision in favor of Entergy Corporation, regarding the continued operation of its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Entergy had sued the State of Vermont on several issues, but mainly on Act 160, a Vermont law that was crafted to block the continued operation of the plant. The plant needs a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the state in order to keep operating, but Act 160 says that the state’s Public Service Board needs legislative approval before it could release its findings on the application for the CPG. Without the new CPG, the plant would have had to shut down when the original one expires, on March 21, 2012. The federal court’s decision “permanently enjoined” the state from using Act 160 to deny a CPG to Entergy; the basis for that decision is the supremacy of federal law over state law.

States rights and Vermont

Supporters of the law that was struck down have raised the the issue of “states rights.” They assert that the state has the right to rule on the plant’s safety, even if the federal government has already ruled. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over nuclear radiological safety, by law, as affirmed by prior court cases. But the supporters further argue that only some members of Vermont’s legislature have spoken of safety, and that in fact Act 160 is based on energy policy and economics.  Yet a review of the federal court’s decision by law professors has pointed out that the state did not introduce any evidence that the law had any other basis than safety.

The Cedar Creek Room

The Cedar Creek Room is the reception room in Vermont’s state capitol building, across the hall from the governor’s ceremonial office. It should be a reminder that the Civil War settled the issue of states rights. Press conferences and many other events are held in the Cedar Creek Room. One wall displays a mural-sized painting of the battle that gives the room its name. The battle was a turning point in the Civil War, by ending Confederate effectiveness in the Shenandoah Valley. Vermont units were prominent in the Union forces at that battle, and five of the 21 Medals of Honor awarded for the engagement went to Vermonters.  Vermont’s participation in the battle was a continuation of the strong abolitionist sentiment inVermont, and of its proud participation in the Underground Railway to Canada. Vermonters are justly proud of their heritage.

Painting of the Civil War Battle of Cedar Creek. Cedar Creek Room, Vermont State House

Political history being repeated

Meanwhile, some parts of political history are being repeated. Taking extreme positions can win elections, even though the positions do not get enacted. For example, the late Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas ran as a moderate on segregation. In 1957, in an apparently politically motivated move, he used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration of Little Rock High School. President Eisenhower federalized the Guard and sent them away. Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students.

In Alabama, George C. Wallace ran for governor as moderate  and lost. He vowed never to lose again, became a staunch segregationist–and won. In 1963, he  “stood in the school house door” at the University of Alabama to block integration, by this action asserting states rights. He backed down to federal marshals and the National Guard.

Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin lost the lieutenant governor’s race in 2002, when a Progressive candidate split the vote. For his 2010 run for governor, Shumlin wanted to be sure that no Progressive ran against him. According to political commentators, Shumlin agreed to run on a platform of shutting down Vermont Yankee if the Progressive candidate would not run. Political pundits say that 14 percent of Shumlin’s vote was  from the anti-nuclear block. He won by one percent. The plant’s opponents are talking about mass non-violent civil disobedience, and holding training for it. Will the court have to enjoin the protesters? Will the federal government have to remove them? Meanwhile, Shumlin is sitting in the governor’s chair.

In the 1980s, in another example of federal versus state authority over nuclear power, Massachusetts sued the NRC over its regulations concerning the bordering Seabrook plant in New Hampshire. Massachusetts appealed up to the Supreme Court and lost. The Massachusetts governor was against the plant, and the appeal appeared to his anti-nuclear constituents that he had done all he could. Vermont is expected to appeal all the way for the same reason.

Federal and state regulation

The federal court has made it clear that the NRC has sole regulation of nuclear power plant radiation safety, and that the states have authority on reliability, rates, the environment, esthetics, and the “public good.”

In addition, states share regulatory authority with the federal government in many areas, including nuclear matters, and have the right to do so.

In Vermont, the Department of Health takes measurements and samples around the Vermont Yankee plant, and reports results. It inspects and oversees radiation safety in facilities other than power plants. The state has set a lower limit than the NRC’s for the annual fence line dose.

The Agency for Natural Resources issues permits for water quality, under the federal Clean Water Act.

Those talking about “states rights” don’t seem to notice that regulatory power is being shared. Perhaps they have forgotten what the Civil War settled, even as they pass by the picture in the Cedar Creek Room.

The latest 

Entergy has petitioned the Public Service Board to act on its application for a new or renewed CPG. Now the Vermont Yankee battle moves to a quasi- judicial venue, with the same politics and the same opponents. This time, however, a ruling from a federal judge makes it clear what can and cannot be heard as evidence. The plant is a big step closer to continued operation, but is not there yet.



Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 35 years. He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS committees, national meeting staffs, and his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow. He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults in nuclear public outreach. 

He is coordinator for the Vermont Pilot Project.  Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.