Category Archives: engineering

Caught in the Leadership Paradox: Insight from Admiral Rickover

By Paul E. Cantonwine

Recent scandals at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and General Motors (GM) have struck a chord with the media and the American people because they represent the worst in bureaucracies—where the lives of individuals seem to get lost in the bureaucratic woods. In the case of the VA, lying about wait times blocked pathways for care and potentially resulted in the early deaths of some veterans. In the case of GM, the bureaucracy put horse blinders on its employees so that they couldn’t recognize the safety significance of ignition switch problems linked to at least 13 deaths.

While it is the nature of organizations to have leaders responsible for directing or dictating from the top down, it is also true that accomplishment only occurs through individual action. Thus, the Leadership Paradox is that while a leader is responsible for the actions of the organization, the actions occur from the individual decisions of those who follow. Organizational scandals, then, are usually a result of a leader’s failure in responding to the Leadership Paradox.

The Leadership Paradox and Admiral Rickover

Hyman_Rickover_1955 155x200To provide some insight into the current problems at GM and the VA, consider the thought of the greatest military engineer and government bureaucrat in U.S. history: Admiral Hyman George Rickover (1900–1986). Admiral Rickover served more than 60 years of active military duty in the U.S. Navy—longer than anyone in our history. He is known as the Father of the Nuclear Navy, and for 34 years he led the organization that developed the pressurized water reactor technology that propels our nuclear Navy and provides about 14 percent of U.S. electricity (boiling water reactors provide an additional 6 percent, approximately).

Admiral Rickover’s approach to the never-ending challenge of the Leadership Paradox was to create an organization made up of professionals. As a leader he then only had to “manage” the standards used in decision-making by the individuals rather than each individual decision. Rickover shaped the culture of his organization, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, by fostering excellence and professionalism.

Professionalism and responsibility

Professionalism occurs when individuals act in the best interest of those being served according to objective values and ethical norms, even when an action is perceived to not be in the best interest of the individual or their organization. That is, there are times when professionals must sacrifice their own interest (or that of their organization) to meet the objective values and ethical norms of the profession. Professionals, in this sense, are serving something greater than the bureaucratic organization that employs them.

If Admiral Rickover had a mantra to shape a professional culture, it would have been, “I am personally responsible.” As a leader, Rickover felt personally responsible for every aspect of his organization, and he instilled this value in everyone working in the organization. In 1961 during Congressional testimony he put it this way: “Responsibility is a unique concept; it may only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, ignorance, or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.”

rickover2 310x201For everyone in the organization to feel personally responsible, a leader has to act personally responsible. Actions really do speak louder than words.  For Rickover, this meant sometimes getting into the details, because he recognized the truism that the devil is always in the details. His mechanism for keeping an eye on the details was through communications from the bottom up that were called “the pinks.” The pinks referred to the pink carbon copy version of letters that he required people, throughout his organization, to write weekly about problems in their areas of responsibility. These pinks provided Rickover a pulse of his organization’s health and were a way to bypass bureaucratic structure to communicate problems. If he thought a problem was significant, he would hold those responsible accountable on Monday.

Personalizing safety and facing the facts

Other ways Rickover fostered professionalism was to personalize safety and to promote facing the facts to avoid “hoping for the best” when evidence suggested the contrary was a possibility. To personalize safety, Rickover was well known for ending technical debates with anecdotes to support the more conservative decision. One famous story is from a meeting discussing the technical merits of sealing the reactor head to the pressure vessel with a gasket/bolt design, versus using a more conservative design that used both a gasket/bolt and a weld. When the team initially recommended the gasket/bolt design, Rickover made his point about conservatism in design by asking the technical team to consider the question: “What would you do if your son was a sailor on this ship?” Thinking about safety in these personal terms highlighted the interests of those being served (the sailors) over the interests of the organization (to minimize cost), and led the team to change their recommendation to the more conservative design.

To help his organization face the facts, Rickover encouraged open debates that were void of any sense of organizational status. He once put it this way: “Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority or even respect. If a subordinate always agrees with his superior he is a useless part of the organization.”

In our highly civilized society, bureaucratic organizations are absolutely critical to the delivery of goods and services that make life possible. GM and the VA both provide an important service to the United States. But when the purpose of an organization becomes the self-interest of the organization, professionalism within the organization is compromised and decisions are no longer made in the best interest of those being served. Like Admiral Rickover before, the leaders of bureaucracies like GM and the VA must recognize that the best response to the Leadership Paradox is to promote true professionalism among the individuals working within their organizations. For good or for bad, it is individuals who make things happen.


cantonwine 110x154Paul E. Cantonwine is a practicing engineer and editor/compiler of The Never-Ending Challenge of Engineering: Admiral H.G. Rickover in His Own Words (ANS 2014). The book is highly recommended for everyone interested in engineering, effective leadership, and nuclear history and is available at the ANS Store.

Why Should I Get a PE License?

The American Nuclear Society, through its Professional Development Committee, will offer a full-day workshop Preparing for the Nuclear Engineering Professional Engineering Exam” on Sunday, June 15, at the ANS Annual Meeting in Reno, Nevada. See Meeting Registration Form for registration information.

By Nate Carstens

Becoming a Professional Engineer (PE) is a significant commitment—why should you consider it?

Advantages to having a PE

Greater career opportunities

A PE license is a legal requirement to practice engineering that is regulated by each state. While many engineers operate under an industrial or government exemption, there are positions where a PE is required. If you are interested in consulting, or even establishing your own business, then you may need a PE to offer engineering services to your clients. The time to get your PE is before you need it, not when you are concentrating on establishing a new venture.

A higher salary

Surveys have shown that engineers with a PE license have a higher average salary than those without. Less than 5 percent of newly degreed engineers become licensed—becoming a PE shows a professional commitment that helps distinguish between engineers. Whether a higher salary leads to a PE, or a PE leads to a higher salary, doesn’t change the outcome.

A high ethical standard

A Professional Engineer is held to a high ethical standard that can be enforced by the state licensing boards. Ethics is a significant focus of the PE community. The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) provides an ethics hotline if you have specific questions, and a Board of Ethical Review serves as the profession’s guide through ethical dilemmas. While ethics are important for any engineer, nuclear engineering is a high visibility field where the welfare of the public is always at the fore. Becoming a PE shows a professional commitment to high ethical standards in a field where retaining the trust of the public is crucial.

There is no time like the present

Much of the PE exam builds upon undergraduate academic studies. Many if not most engineers rapidly specialize within their field after leaving academia. This can make taking the broadly based PE exam a more significant investment in review time. Taking the PE exam as early as possible tests you on this technical material while it is still fresh in your mind.

Furthermore, some states are now relaxing the experience requirements before taking the PE exam (experience is still needed before the PE license can be awarded). The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) recently amended its Model Law, a set of best practice guidelines, to remove the requirement of four years of experience before taking the exam.

Steps to licensure

Requirements vary between states and territories, but in general there are four key steps:

  • Graduate from an ABET accredited engineering program. Until 2020, either a four-year undergraduate degree or a master’s degree in engineering is recommended by the NCEES Model Law. After January 1, 2020, the Model Law requires a master’s degree–level of engineering coursework (if not a master’s degree) before licensure.
  • Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. The FE exam is a six-hour exam with 110 multiple-choice questions covering many of the subjects taken as an undergraduate engineering student. The exam is frequently taken during the last year of undergraduate studies, or shortly thereafter. The exam recently transitioned to computer-based testing (CBT) and is offered in year-round testing windows at NCEES-approved Pearson VUE test centers. NCEES offers many resources, including a reference handbook (the only material that can be used during the exam) and practice exams that may be downloaded from their website.
  • Gain experience. The experience requirements vary but the Model Law suggests four years of experience following an undergraduate degree. The Model Law application process requires five references; three of these must be licensed engineers. Once you begin this process, it is a good idea to contact your state licensing board and talk to other licensed engineers about how to gain this experience.
  • Pass the PE exam. The Nuclear PE Exam is an eight-hour exam split into morning and afternoon sections. Each four-hour section has 40 multiple choice questions. The exams are open book (there are significant restrictions on items such as calculators) and are currently only offered on paper, generally twice per year in April and October (smaller exams may only be offered once per year, which for Nuclear is in October). CBT options may be coming in the future.

After following these four steps, you will be eligible for licensure in most jurisdictions.

Next steps

If you are considering licensure, there are several resources available:

  • The ANS Professional Engineering Examination Committee (PEEC) provides a one-day review course on the Sunday before the June Annual ANS meeting. Engineers considering the PE exam will benefit from a broad review of the main subject matters included on the test. The course’s review guide may also be separately purchased from the ANS store.
  • NCEES provides resources to engineers considering the PE, including the exam specifications (content areas), most recent exam pass rates, and testing details, such as calculator requirements.
  • Numerous websites including NSPE and The Power to Pass offer frequently asked questions and advice on the PE exam.

The Nuclear PE Exam has fewer resources available than some of the larger disciplines. Although members of the ANS PEEC who prepare the exam cannot help you study for the exam, we would still like to help. PEEC members can provide information including:

  • How to apply for the exam.
  • What types of references you might want to use to prepare for the exam.
  • Information on the workshop.

Please feel free to contact us through ANS.

discovere engineers week 2014 more square


carstens 80x145Dr. Nate Carstens is a senior nuclear engineer at Numerical Applications in Richland, WA. He specializes in code development for thermal hydraulic modeling and simulation. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Oregon State in 2001, his Master’s degree from MIT in 2004, and his Doctor of Science from MIT in 2007, all in nuclear engineering. He is a P.E. in the state of Washington and a member of the ANS Professional Engineering Examination Committee.

The 2013 Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation

By Matthew Gidden and Nicholas Thompson

From July 7 –12, 16 students from around the country came to Washington DC to talk with politicians and policymakers about nuclear engineering education funding, energy policy, and other nuclear issues as part of the 2013 Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation (NESD). This year the delegation was comprised of students with especially diverse backgrounds, including nuclear engineering, chemical engineering, materials science, and nuclear safeguards policy. The chair of the delegation was Matthew Gidden, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying nuclear engineering and energy policy. He was assisted by two co-vice chairs: Mark Reed of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Nicholas Thompson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The NESD began in 1994 as a response to deep cuts in funding for nuclear research reactors in the fiscal year 1995 budget. Funding was ultimately restored to the program in part due to the efforts of these first delegates. Following this initial success, the NESD has returned every year to bring the voice of nuclear engineering students to Washington. This year, we had the distinct honor to meet with key governmental affairs staff at Areva and from the Nuclear Energy Institute, high-level staff at the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, four of the five Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioners (including the chairman), non-proliferation experts at the Department of State, budget staff at the Office of Management and Budget, congressional staff on the Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works Committees, and over 100 congressional offices including some meetings with representatives and senators in person.

NESD_WH 400x300

Left to right: Lane Carasik, Andrew Cartas, Nicholas Thompson (Co-Vice Chair), Buckley O’Day, Erin Dughie, Tom Grimes, Benjamin Reinke, Vishal Patel, Matthew Gidden (chair), Thomas Holschuh, Mark Reed (co-vice chair), Shelly Arreguin, Anagha Iyengar, and Ekaterina Paramonova

Policy statement writing

First, the entire group gathered in a meeting room at the hotel and spent the first hour or so talking about what we considered to be the important issues facing nuclear engineering education. After everyone had a chance to express their thoughts, the chairs gave a quick recap of everything that had been discussed. The delegates emphasized two subjects: continued funding of the Integrated University Program and passage of the Nuclear Waste Administration Act. A number of other issues were addressed, including domestic fusion research funding, energy policy, nuclear export agreements, and neutron detectors for port security. After the break for lunch, the delegates divided back into groups and drafted each section of the policy statement. At the end of the day the group edited the sections together. The delegates read the combined document and agreed upon its content by consensus. Throughout the week, the delegates distributed this statement in meetings with congressional offices and other organizations. This year’s policy statement can be found here.

Areva meeting

On Monday morning, the delegates had their first meeting with the governmental affairs staff of Areva. The meeting began with a general presentation by the vice president of governmental affairs on Areva’s international business portfolio. The Areva staff gave a presentation about the mixed-oxide fuel project and its importance to our joint arms reduction commitments with Russia. They also discussed the business importance of being active in policy discussions in DC. The morning concluded with a discussion with Mary Alice Hayward on her experiences in nonproliferation and the importance of technical expertise in international agreements.

NEI meeting

On Monday afternoon, the delegation visited the Nuclear Energy Institute. Leslie Barbour and other staff members described the function of NEI and how the organization operates. They then discussed the importance of building and maintaining relationships with congressional staff. They also explained NEI’s surveys and data on the nuclear workforce. We ended the meeting discussing our policy statement and received helpful feedback.

Dinner with congressional fellows

On Monday evening, the delegation had dinner with Lara Pierpoint (American Association for the Advancement of Science congressional fellow working for Senator Ron Wyden, D., Oregon) and Ron Faibish (science fellow for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources). These young scholars shared their experiences on the Hill and specifically spoke about their efforts in crafting the Nuclear Waste Administration Act.

DOE meeting

On Tuesday morning, the delegation visited the Department of Energy to meet with the Office of Nuclear Energy. The program leads for NE’s Fuel Cycle R&D, Light Water Reactor Technologies, and Nuclear Engineering University Program (NEUP) discussed the myriad of funding and programmatic opportunities for research provided by NE. The staff discussed some of the priorities in specific research areas and the importance of Integrated University Program (IUP) funding. Brad Williams spoke about the various forms of funding for graduate education, discussing the NEUP Scholarships and Fellowships (funded through the IUP) and the research grants that provide graduate research assistantships at specific universities. We then had lunch with Pete Lyons, the DOE’s assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy, who shared his perspective on how DC operates and the importance of nuclear engineering research to our nation’s future.

NRC meeting

On Tuesday afternoon, the delegation went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission headquarters in Rockville, Md. The delegation met with NRC education staff, who described the various methods by which the NRC provides educational enrichment opportunities to universities—through graduate fellowships, undergraduate scholarships, and curriculum development grants. The staff discussed internal metrics used to ensure the effectiveness of the programs and reiterated that none of these programs would be possible without the IUP. We also had the great fortune of meeting with three of the commissioners: Chairman Allison Macfarlane, Commissioner George Apostolakis, and Commissioner William Ostendorff. We had very robust discussions with all three commissioners about many different topics, including small modular reactors, Gen-IV technology, linear no-threshold dose, IUP funding, and commercial reprocessing.

Department of State meeting

On Wednesday morning, the delegation met Gilbert Brown and Ryan Taugher at the Department of State. Brown, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and current Foster fellow at the Department of State, explained the concept “Team USA” and the importance of the international framework on nuclear security. Taugher explained the structure of the Department of State and the framework for the Partnership for Nuclear Security (PNS). Through the PNS, the Department of State establishes cooperative partnerships with other nations to support the peaceful use of nuclear energy and achieve mutually beneficial nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation objectives.

OMB meeting

The delegation’s annual meeting with the Office of Management and Budget on Wednesday afternoon was the most notable in recent memory. Christine MacDonald, one of the employees responsible for allocating DOE funds, discussed current budgeting. A representative from the National Science Foundation (NSF) discussed the President’s Science, Technology, Engineering & Math initiative, NSF fellowships, NEUP, and IUP. The delegation provided recent statistical evidence showing that the majority of nuclear engineering graduate students work for the U.S. government after completing their studies, effectively communicated how NEUP and IUP have helped increase the attractiveness of the nuclear field to graduate students, and provided numerous examples of how IUP has allowed students to conduct important nuclear research that would not otherwise be funded.

Dinner with NRC Commissioner Magwood

On Wednesday evening, the delegation had dinner with Commissioner Magwood, who cares deeply about student issues. We discussed our meetings with the other three commissioners, recent events in the nuclear industry (e.g., shutdown of San Onofre and Kewaunee), and the IUP and the NRC’s role in education and workforce development. Magwood imparted wisdom from his past experiences as chairman of the Generation IV International Forum and working with the Fast Flux Test Facility.

Hill visits

On Thursday and Friday, the delegation accomplished its main objective on the Hill. Delegates met with or dropped by the offices of all 100 senators as well as 42 representatives. The delegates also personally met with five senators (Maria Cantwell, D., Wash.; Patty Murray, D., Wash.; Jeff Merkley, D., Oregon; Mike Lee, R., Utah; Tom Harkin, D., Iowa) and five representatives (Ralph Hall, R., Texas; Steve Stivers, R., Ohio; Chris Gibson, D., N.Y.; John Garamendi, D., Calif.; Bill Flores, R., Texas). The remainder of meetings took place with congressional staffers and committees. The delegation’s presence was well received and there were many conversations and an overall interest in learning more, leaving us with the impression that our efforts indeed left a mark of influence this year. In particular, as our visits earlier in the week to the NEI, NE, and NRC showed broad support for the Nuclear Waste Administration Act, many of the congressional offices were interested in learning more about the bill or already supported it. Some memorable discussions included one with Senator Feinstein’s office, which is working on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act. They stated that nuclear waste storage issues are more political than technological, and that they are open to implementing nuclear power in the future to reduce carbon emissions if a waste storage solution is adopted. In addition to discussion of our statement, delegates also had the opportunity to discuss other nuclear-related topics and applications such as nuclear desalination and nuclear development of U.S. oil shale. Delegates established relationships that will be extremely valuable in the future, and we look forward to observing the delegation’s impact as the year progresses.

Thursday dinner

Thursday night we were pleased to have dinner with ANS/AAAS fellow Vincent Esposito and Annie Caputo of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Esposito gave some great career advice and talked about some of the legislation he’s been working on.

Friday breakfast

The following morning, we had breakfast with Leslie Barbour of NEI and Craig Piercy, the ANS Washington representative. Piercy talked about the ongoing challenges with Yucca Mountain and the need for people with technical experience coming to Washington.


This was one of the best NESDs in recent memory, and it would not have been possible without the help of many individuals and organizations. We’d like to especially thank Leslie Barbour for her instrumental role in facilitating meetings and for her continued support and guidance of NESD over the years. The NESD would also like to thank NEI and ANS for supporting the NESD financially, as well as the individual institutions of each of the delegates for supporting their travel expenses. We would also like to thank the other organizations, offices, congressmen, and other officials with which we were able to meet; each meeting brought different insights and points of view to these issues. The NESD is always looking for enthusiastic and articulate technical leaders with a desire to influence policy. If you are interested in being part of the NESD or meeting with us next year, please visit our website or email us.

NESD_Ein 400x300

Left to right: Jeremy Pearson, Thomas Holschuh, Mark Reed (co-vice chair), Ekaterina Paramonova, Andrew Cartas, Lane Carasik, Erin Dughie, Matthew Gidden (chair), Buckley O’Day, Benjamin Reinke, Tom Grimes, Anagha Iyengar, Dr. Gilbert Brown, Vishal Patel


gidden 120x160Matthew Gidden is a Ph.D. student in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a member of the Computational Nuclear Engineering Research Group under Professor Paul Wilson, and his research focuses on modeling and simulation of the nuclear fuel cycle.


thompson 120x155Nicholas Thompson is a Ph.D. student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying nuclear engineering and science. His current research is on using a lead slowing-down spectrometer to measure various nuclear data at the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator Center.

Nuclear Engineering PE Exam Workshop at June ANS Meeting

Sunday, June 16, 2013
8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Location: Learning Center

For American Nuclear Society members planning to sit for the nuclear engineering Professional Engineering exam, a professional development workshop, titled “Preparing for the Nuclear Engineering Professional Engineering Exam,” will be offered on Sunday, June 16, at the ANS Annual Meeting in Atlanta.

nuclear engineers 160x120Instructors will provide details on how registering to take the exam differs from state to state, plus an overview of the examination formats. The four basic skill areas—nuclear power, nuclear fuel cycle, interaction of radiation, and nuclear criticality/kinetics/neutronics—will be discussed in detail. For each skill area, the instructor will describe the topics and the skills to be tested.

Examples of questions will be presented in depth, after which students will work other typical test questions on their own. Instructors will provide assistance, then review solutions with the group. Students will be provided with the ANS study guide, including a sample exam and a list of recommended resources for continued study.

nuclear engineer 1 168x120Join us in Atlanta for “Preparing for the Nuclear Engineering Professional Engineering Exam” at the June ANS meeting.

NOTE: If you are unable to attend the ANS meeting in June to participate in the workshop, you can order a copy of the PE study guide—as a downloadable PDF file—at the ANS Store.

Early Bird Special meeting registration and hotel reservation, with complimentary in-room internet, is available through this Friday, May 24.  Reduced rate for the PE Exam Professional Development Workshop is also available through May 24. There is no need to be registered for the 2013 ANS Annual Meeting to participate in this Professional Development Workshop.

Still not convinced? Former ANS Young Members Group Chair Jennifer Varnedoe explains the many good reasons to get your Professional Engineer license.

orange cooling towers


How Can Nuclear Construction Costs Be Reduced?

by Jim Hopf

This month’s post discusses my ideas on an issue I’ve been thinking about for awhile.  Although we have four new reactors under construction in the United States (at Vogtle and Summer), the nuclear “renaissance” has so far not been nearly as strong as many had hoped. This begs the question as to what is holding nuclear back.

Impediments to nuclear growth

Some have suggested the need for even safer reactors, despite the fact that overall nuclear is already among the safest, if not the safest of all energy sources.  The fact that any direct health consequences of Fukushima, which was essentially a worst-case nuclear accident, have been essentially non-existent further suggests that insufficient safety is not the primary area needing improvement (or factor limiting nuclear’s growth).

Others believe that the nuclear waste issue is the main reason holding nuclear back, and that “solving” it (by closing the fuel cycle and through other advances in fuel cycle technology) would “unleash” nuclear to grow and solve our energy problems.  The truth, however, is that indefinite on-site storage of all of a plant’s waste (in the pool and in dry casks), versus having the Department of Energy take it away after a few decades, increases the cost of nuclear power by only ~0.1 cents/kW-hr.  Waste management activities will never be a significant fraction of nuclear power’s total cost, regardless of what waste policy is adopted, or what fuel cycle we develop.  I had thought that the perceived lack of a waste solution would significantly reduce support for nuclear, but it appears that, at least where almost all new US nuclear projects are proposed (in the Southeast), there is an ample degree of public/political support for new reactors.

No, it’s pretty clear that the primary factor holding nuclear back is economics, particularly the high upfront capital cost of new reactors.  The current low price of natural gas, coupled with a weak economy (and associated lack of power demand growth), and the lack of taxes or limits on CO2 emissions does not help, but it is also true that the costs of reactor construction have increased substantially over the past ~8 years (and increases in labor or raw materials costs do not come close to explaining this).  In addition to escalating initial cost estimates, many if not most current reactor projects have been experiencing fabrication issues and cost overruns.

How can we reduce costs?

Based on the above, it seems clear that nuclear research and development should focus primarily on ways to reduce nuclear plant construction costs, and less on fuel cycle or even safer reactor technology.  Even the safest conceivable reactors and fuel cycle will do nothing to help overall public health and safety and reduce environmental impacts if nuclear is not deployed – due to high capital cost – while fossil fuels (which are vastly worse than current reactor technology in terms of public health and safety) are used instead.  Ideally, this is something the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would keep in mind as well.

What is really needed, however, is to have all the experts sit down and perform a thorough, objective evaluation to figure out what is driving nuclear construction costs, and what needs to change to reduce those costs.  In this analysis, everything needs to be on the table—all regulations, policies, and practices. Nothing can be viewed as sacred or unchangeable (i.e., “that’s just the way things are in the nuclear business”).  We need to fundamentally reexamine all of our current policies and requirements, to determine which ones produce the most bang for the buck in terms of public health and safety benefit.

Not only should nuclear requirements be compared to each other (for benefit vs. cost), but nuclear requirements should be objectively compared to the requirements placed on other energy sources and industries.  One mindset that simply must disappear is that of “nuclear exceptionalism”, which views nuclear’s potential impacts/accidents to be uniquely unacceptable (i.e., that radio-isotope pollution is a uniquely unacceptable form of pollution), and that therefore, unlike other industries, no expense should be spared to remove even the tiniest chance of release.  By extension, we should ask why non-nuclear power plants are so much cheaper to build.  Is it that nuclear plants are more complex, or have more safety features, or is it the unique quality assurance requirements that only apply to nuclear?

My personal view is that the main factor leading to high plant construction costs is not the design of the reactors, or various safety features that they employ, but the uniquely strict QA requirements that apply (only) for the fabrication of safety-related nuclear plant components (i.e., “nuclear grade” components). Conversely, I believe that in terms of safety, fundamental reactor design, employed safety features, intelligent operation/training, and maintenance are much more significant (effective) than the application of extremely stringent fabrication quality control requirements.  This is a personal opinion that I welcome comments on—the purpose of this article being to start a discussion.

The costs of nuclear’s unique QA requirements

Having supplier qualifications and requirements for component fabrication that far exceed those applied to any other industry can lead to dramatically higher costs, for multiple reasons.  In addition to the increased costs of compliance, the number of qualified suppliers is much smaller, which in turn results in supply bottlenecks, not enough fabrication capacity to meet demand, and (essentially) a bidding war for components.  This seems to be a far more plausible explanation for the observed increase in reactor construction cost (vs. that initially estimated) than any shortages of labor or raw material.  Conversely, if the nuclear industry could use a more typical set of industrial quality requirements (e.g., ISO-9000), the number of suppliers would increase dramatically, there would be ample supply and significant competition, and costs for nuclear components could drop substantially.

It seems clear that problems complying with fabrication QA requirements, as opposed to reactor design features, are primarily responsible for reactor project cost overruns, since the reactor design was fully understood at the time of the initial cost estimate.  Also, meeting “nuclear grade” fabrication requirements is the reason most often cited in the numerous articles discussing cost overruns at nuclear projects.

At Vogtle, they are having significant problems, and cost overruns, due to the construction of something as simple as the concrete pad that the reactor will sit on.  This comment from an article on the Vogtle difficulties is typical:  The fabricator was “not accustomed to the requirements to document every step in the fabrication process. Correcting the mistakes took eight months for one of its modules….”  In addition to problems such as this, the Vogtle project is literally spending billions of dollars on quality control programs.

Similar problems are occurring for the nuclear projects in Finland and France, QA/fabrication issues being the primary reason for cost overruns.  And yet, those same reactor designs, with all the same safety features, are being built at a fraction of the cost in China.  Why the difference?  I believe that lower labor costs are only part of it.

I’ve also, anecdotally, heard many stories about how the nuclear-grade version of a component often costs several times that of the commercial/industrial-grade version of the same thing.  This is not due to any material difference in the component; just the QA paperwork cost and the (severe) lack of nuclear-qualified suppliers.  I have significant doubts as to whether the safety benefits are worth the additional cost.

Potential negative impacts on safety?

Due to onerous QA requirements, as well as the nuclear industry practice of taking a great deal of time in analyzing everything (“analysis paralysis”), there can be significant reluctance to make changes, including adding safety features or improvements.  In addition to making it more difficult to change, or even fix things, these practices also act to stifle innovation and technological progress in our industry.  The NRC “review barrier” to new, innovative, safer reactor designs is but one example.

Consider the following example: the NRC is debating whether or not to require filters on reactor vents that would remove most of the cesium from any vented air stream that may be necessary to control containment interior pressure in the case of a severe accident.  (Failure to vent was a major factor in the Fukushima event, resulting in a much larger release.)  In my opinion, such a design feature seems to be extremely worthwhile, since it greatly reduces potential cesium releases, and the long-term consequences of severe nuclear accidents pretty much scale (specifically) with the amount of cesium released.  The filters would cost ~$16 million per reactor.

Meanwhile, the Vogtle project was significantly delayed (several months) due to minor, inconsequential variations (from the specified design) in the rebar within the concrete pad that the reactor will sit on. Eventually, the NRC agreed that the alternate configuration was fine, but it took an inordinate amount of time (and money) to reach that conclusion. Under current practices and procedures, addressing any changes or deviations from an approved design is extremely difficult and time-consuming. Did this base pad rebar issue cost the Vogtle project more than $16 million? I’m pretty sure it’s much more than that.

So the question is, which is better bang for the buck in terms of safety: installing cesium filters on containment vents for $16 million, or spending a much larger sum to address (or correct) a small/inconsequential change to the rebar configuration in the plant foundation?  To me the answer is obvious.  Would dramatically reducing the cesium release in the event of a severe accident result in a significant reduction in nuclear’s overall risk?  Absolutely!  A small change in the configuration of the rebar in the (passive) concrete pad that the reactor sits on?  I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how that would have any significant impact on the likelihood or severity of a significant accident/release.

Despite this, whereas the cesium filters may end up not being required, the fact that Vogtle had to do what it did to resolve a minor deviation from licensed design (any deviation from licensed design), is not even questioned.  It’s just “the way things are in our industry”.

There have been some allegations made that the nuclear industry is not doing enough in terms of flood protection or component maintenance at some sites. Improvements in these areas may very well result in measurable reductions in risk, but, in my opinion, excessive (and unique to nuclear) QA requirements make any such responses or improvements so difficult and expensive that the industry is sometimes reluctant to implement them.  That’s both in terms of component fabrication QA requirements and the amount of analysis and review that is required for any actions or changes.  The end result could actually be a net increase in overall risk.

In my view, risks from component fabrication defects are not a significant fraction of overall nuclear risk.  No serious accident has ever resulted from a fabrication defect.  Instead, the rare instances that have occurred resulted from poor reactor design, operator error, or from things the industry just hadn’t thought of.  Fukushima is probably an excellent example of the latter.  They simply didn’t anticipate (or view as credible) a tsunami of that height.  Seawall fabrication defects were not the issue.

In other words, let’s put cesium filters on reactor vents, but pay, say, ~$4 million for them, instead of $16 million, by foregoing the impeccable fabrication and paperwork requirements required for “nuclear grade”, “safety related” components.  Let’s apply the QA requirements/standards that generally apply for other industries, or perhaps even use “commercial grade” filters.  It would surely be better than doing nothing.

Lazy thinking?

I’ve been in the industry long enough to know how most will respond to the above (rash) proposal.  Industry thinking tends to be that if full, nuclear-grade QA requirements are not applied to a component, it’s the same as it simply not being there.  Probability of function is 0%, regardless of the fact that such a failure type (or mode) is completely impossible.

Given the huge costs of nuclear-grade QA requirements, the industry has not put nearly enough time and effort into evaluating the probability of failure of non-nuclear grade/qualified components, and what the nature of any failures would be.  Such evaluations should be followed by detailed probabalistic risk assessment (PRA) analyses to determine what the effect on accident/release frequency (and severity) would be of having various components not be nuclear-grade.  These effects, on risk, should then be objectively compared to other options for reducing risk, such as fundamentally safer reactor designs, or the employment of various safety features (e.g., vent filters).

Such an effort has not been made, however (the NRC’s new “risk-informed” philosophy is a far cry from what I’m talking about).  It’s easy to follow up any analysis or evaluation with the statement: “and it shall be a perfectly constructed component, with zero defects”, without any regard for how much it will cost to make such a guarantee.  That way, one doesn’t need to do the hard task of evaluating the likelihood and consequences of (realistic) component failure.  Also easy is the notion that zero changes or deviations from the approved design are allowed, and that any change at all (no matter how small) requires re-performing and re-reviewing all the associated licensing analyses/evaluations.  How about exercising a little engineering judgment?

One has to ask how other industries handle fabrication defects or deviations. It seems clear it’s not the way the nuclear industry does, given their lower construction costs, shorter schedules, and fewer cost overruns.  It’s not like construction projects such as bridges, tall buildings, oil refineries, chemical plants, or non-nuclear power plants, etc., are not “important to safety”.  In many cases, their potential consequences (of component failure, etc.) are actually just as great.  Yet under nuclear QA logic, all these structures are repeatedly vanishing, crumbling into dust, or simply not performing their design functions, given that they were not built to nuclear-grade standards.  The real truth, of course, is that all these structures have been performing just fine, with acceptable levels of safety.

This is all just an example of the “nuclear exceptionalism” discussed earlier, where nuclear risks (or potential consequences) are treated as being infinitely greater than that of any other endeavor, while the facts clearly show otherwise.  For this reason, uniquely strict QA requirements, unlike those used in any other industry, may be hard to justify.


My personal view is that the low risk of significant release primarily comes from fundamental reactor design, safety features, and operational practices (e.g., operator training).  The onerous, uniquely strict component fabrication QA requirements and procedures that are applied only to the nuclear industry provide relatively little risk reduction relative to how much they are costing.

Thus, my primary recommendation is that while the NRC should definitely thoroughly review new reactor designs, once a reactor design is certified, normal industrial QA requirements should apply to reactor (and reactor component) construction.  That is, the same fabrication/construction requirements and practices that apply to non-nuclear power plants.  This would not only greatly reduce costs directly, but it would result in an enormous increase in the number of suppliers that can participate in nuclear plant construction, which would further greatly reduce costs.

At a minimum, the detailed component failure evaluation I described earlier should be performed, and specific relaxations to fabrication QA requirements should be evaluated and possibly traded for other, more cost-effective measures to reduce risk.  One example of a cost-effective measure, in my view, is the rapid emergency response capability that the industry is now developing.  One lesson learned from Fukushima is that flexibility, and the ability to respond (quickly), is imperative since one can never really predict the sort of events and disasters that potentially may happen in the future.  Another example would be that if one developed a smaller, lower power density reactor that was fundamentally safer (perhaps even unable to meltdown, due to basic size and geometry) but was somewhat more expensive, the QA requirements on at least some components should be relaxed, since the consequences of component failure would be far lower.

One thing seems clear to me.  Given how things are going with current (large) reactor projects, in the developed world anyway, the industry does not appear to be on a success path.  It was given a second chance to show that it could build new reactors at a reasonable cost, and on time and on budget, and it appears to be failing (although things don’t appear to be too bad yet at Vogtle and Summer).  Barring a large increase in natural gas prices AND the enactment of hard, declining limits on CO2 emissions (that would force a phaseout of coal), it appears that few new nuclear plants will be built in the future in the developed world.  Something has to change; something that will significantly reduce plant construction costs.

Small modular reactors, built in an assembly-line-like fashion, may offer a way forward; a development that I will discuss in a later post.  As for large reactors, the ideas presented in this article are my best attempt to figure out what could be done to change an otherwise fairly bleak picture.  I again remind everyone (and the NRC) that the environmental and public health benefits of nuclear (which are huge) will not be realized if nuclear is not deployed and fossil fuels are used instead.  We need to make a concerted effort to do what’s necessary to reduce nuclear plant construction costs, not only in the area of technology development and deployment, but in the areas of regulations and QA requirements as well.

I hope to start an active discussion on this topic, and hear other people’s ideas on what could be done to reduce nuclear plant construction costs.



Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Looking forward to next 70 years of atomic fission

By Rod Adams

This past weekend the world quietly marked the 70th anniversary of the initial criticality of CP-1 (Critical Pile 1), the 55th anniversary of the initial criticality of the Shippingport nuclear power plant, and the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise, a 51 year-old nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Those events have put me into a reflective but incredibly optimistic mood.

Imagine how exciting it must have been to be in the nuclear field in the early years. Talented engineers and scientists moved the technological needle from a basic pile of graphite bricks with uranium lumps, to full-scale power production, in machines that lasted for many decades, over a brief span of less than two decades. They accomplished that progress during a period when calculations were made with slide rules and modest-capacity computing devices that filled entire rooms, and when drawings were created by rooms full of people using hand tools. They overcame the disadvantage of having lost almost an entire decade (1946–1954) during which only the selected few could think nuclear thoughts without risking incarceration.

By 1990, the annual electricity production in the United States from steam plants—whose furnaces were heated using the controlled fission chain reaction that Fermi and his team had proven—exceeded the entire amount of electricity produced each year by all of the power plants that were operating in the United States in 1960. That commercial milestone occurred less than 50 years after the basic physical process was proven.

Unfortunate slow down

Even by then, however, the growth in nuclear energy production around the world was slowing down as a result of many factors, including an increasingly well-organized and well-funded movement expressly aimed at halting the use of nuclear energy. Nuclear technologists bear some of the blame for the loss of support; they (we) failed to explain why we’re so darned excited about the possibilities offered by this fascinating new technology.

We also failed to notice that there were a large number of rich and powerful people who were not enthusiastic about creating a power source that could approach a goal of being so inexpensive that no one would bother measuring how much was consumed each month. As a group, we were so happy to be working with a material that stored 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as the most energy-dense hydrocarbon fuels that we overlooked the fact that many people enjoy enormous benefits from selling hydrocarbon fuels. It is a great business to be in; anyone who bought fuel yesterday is likely to buy fuel again tomorrow.

People whose livelihoods depend on moving mass quantities of material from deep underground, through capital-intensive processing plants, and into furnaces and engines around the world, were not so terribly excited about the reality that Fermi had shown us—how we could use a material that allows a man with a backpack to transport as much energy as a supertanker.

Listen to nuclear communicators

On December 2, 2012, I gathered a group of nuclear professionals who have taken on a shared avocation of communicating the wonders of atomic fission and the possibilities that its unique characteristics can provide. You can listen to that conversation at Atomic Show #191 – 70th Anniversary of CP-1, the First Controlled Fission Chain Reaction.

We spoke about the magical simplicity of Fermi’s design and about the fact that, unlike the enormously expensive and still elusive effort to harness controlled nuclear fusion, Fermi and his team could be supremely confident that their device would work on the first try. We spoke about how it would be possible for a group of high school students, given the proper materials, to build a working fission reactor that could be safely started and controlled.

We then discussed how incredible it might be if we could treat nuclear technology in a manner similar to the way that we have treated computer hardware and software technology. Kirk Sorensen, a forward–thinking nuclear technologist who is the co-founder of Flibe Energy, has given several talks to audiences in Silicon Valley, and always comes away energized by thinking about how far we could advance our energy production systems if we adopted some of the knowledge-sharing principles that pervade the Valley.

I’ve had that experience one time at a Google Tech Talk; it may be time to make that trip again, to help increase support for the truly exciting developments in small modular reactor development that are happening in a number of places in the United States.

Shippingport Atomic Power Station

Though we were all in agreement that we could be doing far more with nuclear energy than we are today, we were not the first people to recognize just how wonderful it was that people had learned how to access atomic energy. Here is a quote from President Eisenhower’s famous Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations, given on December 8, 1953.

The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?

To hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of the people and the governments of the East and West, there are certain steps that can be taken now.

To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you, and therefore before the world, its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma—to devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.

(Emphasis added.)

That is the vision that keeps me moving forward. I share it as often as I can on whatever pulpits I am offered.

Solving the trilemma

Along with the material endowment provided by nature (God, if you prefer), nuclear knowledgeable people have in their minds the capability that will help to solve what the World Energy Council describes in a recent series of reports as a “trilemma”.

.. simultaneously address energy security, universal access to affordable energy services, and environmentally-sensitive production and use of energy is one of the most formidable challenges facing governments—indeed some might argue that it is the most formidable, or even the most important. The World Energy Trilemma report, now in its fourth year, aims to help governments rise to the challenge of tackling this ‘trilemma’.



Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

The MTR—Gone now, but not forgotten

by Will Davis

Recently, Dr. Nicole Stricker of the Idaho National Laboratory sent a link for the following video to members of the ANS Social Media list.

INL Waste Video

The entire video is quite interesting, but my interest was tweaked during the time frame 3:23 to 3:28 in the video by what looked like a reactor vessel being tipped over during decommissioning of a nuclear facility; the voice-over at the time is talking about just that. A request for information revealed that the reactor shown at that moment in the video was the Materials Testing Reactor, or MTR.

I had known that the MTR had been long shut down, but was really unaware of its present status. The MTR has a place in nuclear history in the United States as the first widely available test reactor; according to The Atomic Energy Deskbook, the MTR was designed jointly by Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratories.  Blaw-Knox acted as architect-engineer, and the plant was built by the Fluor Corporation.

Let’s let the words of Phillips Petroleum Company, which operated the MTR for the Atomic Energy Commission, describe the facility; they’re found in the booklet (in my collection) whose cover is reproduced below.

“The Materials Testing Reactor is a unique and versatile research tool. It was designed and constructed as a pioneering step in the development of high neutron intensity reactors with the primary purpose of providing facilities to test the effects of neutron bombardment on materials of interest in future reactor construction. It has neutron fluxes 10 to 100 times greater than those in other reactors. As a result, it can provide radiation at a very high dose rate and produce isotopes with higher specific activity than those now available from other sources.

The MTR is a thermal (slow) neutron reactor using uranium enriched in isotope U235 as fuel, ordinary water as both moderator and coolant, and beryllium as the reflector. It is designed to generate the heat equivalent of 30,000 kilowatts.  Because of its high specific power, average neutron fluxes of 2 X 10^14 thermal neutrons per square centimeter per second and 5 X 10^13 fast neutrons per square centimeter per second are available. Peak thermal neutron fluxes of 5 X 10^14 neutrons per square centimeter per second exist in certain positions in the reactor.

The enriched uranium fuel is contained in an active core which is inside a lattice region 40 by 70 centimeters in area and 60 centimeters high (16 x 28 x 24 inches). It is surrounded by a 40 inch high reflector of beryllium pieces. Both lattice and reflector are enclosed in a 55 inch diameter aluminum tank which is extended by stainless steel sections above and below to form a 30 foot deep well which is closed top and bottom with heavy lead filled steel plugs.  ….The reactor lattice and beryllium reflector are cooled by water flowing at a rate of 20,000 gallons per minute. This water enters near the top of the well at 100F and leaves near the bottom at 111F. The water is fed by gravity from a 170 foot high tank through the reactor tank to a vacuum spray evaporator system for cooling and degassing, then is pumped back to the tank.”

According to contemporary documents from Sylvania-Corning Nuclear Corporation in my collection, fuel elements for the MTR were “93% enriched uranium alloyed with aluminum, clad in aluminum, and formed into curved plates approximately 24″ long, 3″ wide and 1/16″ thick. The fuel element consists of nineteen such plates brazed into aluminum side plates to form a boxlike assembly approximately 3″ x 3″ in cross-section. Aluminum adaptors are welded to the ends of the fuel element. Each element contains 200 grams of U235 and normally 25 such elements fuel the reactor.”

In addition to offering irradiation services directly using the reactor, the MTR also offered gamma irradiation using spent fuel as described below by Phillips Petroleum:

“The gamma field is provided by used MTR fuel elements, which are stored under water until they have cooled sufficiently to be transferred to the chemical processing plant for recovery of U235.” At left, the original MTR canal where gamma irradiation was performed, which offered, according to Phillips, gamma fields up to 10^7 roentgens per hour.

The MTR first began operating in 1952—although, according to the excellent “Proving the Principle” (Susan M. Stacy/Idaho Operations Office of the Department of Energy, 2000), the plans were started for what became the MTR as early as 1944. The MTR, when placed in operation, quickly found itself with a list of experiments to perform and samples to irradiate. According to documentation provided by Erik Simpson, CWI media spokesman, the MTR performed over 15,000 irradiation experiments during its operational lifetime.

The MTR operated successfully as one of the most highly in – demand test reactors for many years. Time caught up to the MTR in 1970; according to “Proving the Principle,” the final experimental plutonium core (nicknamed “Phoenix”) was operated in the reactor through April 23, 1970, when the reactor was shut down. One final experiment in August 1970 saw the MTR go critical again for 48 hours when Aerojet, by then the MTR contractor, started it up for paid research into mercury contamination of wildlife. But that was it. The reactor never operated again.

The reactor was defueled, and parts of the facility were used for other purposes (some functions even going on next to the shutdown reactor itself without involving it) for some years until the DOE made the decision in 2005 to dispose of the facility. Erik Simpson has provided us with a copy of the 2007 Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis for the Materials Test Reactor End-State and Vessel Disposal; of the various site solutions described in this document, the one chosen and carried out is the one that called for removal of the above grade structure, the reactor vessel, and below-grade structure with the vessel being stabilized and stored onsite at a dedicated facility.

Erik provides us with two fascinating links that show much more than we saw in the opening video of the decommissioning of the MTR facility. In the first video link, we see a number of activities of the Idaho Cleanup Project; the MTR facility is seen in this video at the time frame 1:15 – 2:30. The second video link gives us a mostly time-lapse view of the demolition of the MTR reactor building (with the large internal shielding and beam tube/sample tube complex, as well as reactor vessel and tank extensions already gone), but slows to real-time to display the explosive demolition of the roof structure.

It goes without saying that in terms of the overall site, many reactor facilities have been remediated, or placed in some level of storage, or will be remediated. Dr. Stricker points out that the former NRTS site, now called the Idaho National Laboratory site, has housed 52 different reactors.

As related in “Proving the Principle,” there were serious last-minute attempts to revitalize the MTR with new projects and new money, but this wasn’t enough to prevent its  shutdown; designation of the MTR as a “historical Signature Property as designated by DOE Headquarters Advisory Council on Historic Preservation” (as related in the disposal analysis) wasn’t enough even to keep the building. We’ve at least put a marker for the MTR and all those who worked on, or at, the facility on the ANS Nuclear Cafe blog with this post, and noted its passing.

(Photo at top courtesy Idaho National Laboratory, via Dr. Nicole Stricker. Video links courtesy Erik Simpson.  MTR brochure photos, Will Davis collection.)

Additional resources

For more information, please visit Argonne National Laboratory’s Basic and Applied Science Research Reactors website—click HERE to open the the page dedicated to the MTR.


Nuclear Engineering PE Exam at June ANS Meeting

By Jennifer Varnedoe

Ready for the next leap in your career? Who doesn’t like extra letters after their name? Well then, why not get a Professional Engineer license?

As the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) states:

Just as the CPA defines the accountant, and a law license defines the lawyer, the PE license tells the public that you have mastered the critical elements of your profession. It demonstrates your commitment to the highest standards of engineering practice. The PE after your name is an advantage that will open doors for the rest of your life.

Four good reasons from NSPE to get licensed:


PEs are respected by the public and are seen in the same positive light as those licensed professionals in other fields. PEs are also held in high esteem by their peers in the engineering community, who see a licensed PE as part of an elite group.

Career development

Employers are impressed with engineers who have their PE license. Licensure not only enhances your stature, it shows commitment to the profession and demonstrates heightened leadership and management skills. Licensure is also a necessity for rising to increased levels of authority and responsibility.


Having a PE license opens up your career options. You can become a specialist, or establish your own business. It also protects you during industry downsizing or outsourcing. The PE license allows you to go as far as your initiative and talent will take you.


Studies have shown that PEs earn higher pay throughout their business careers. Having your PE allows expanded opportunities beyond a company structure—as an independent consultant, for example.

ANS Nuclear PE workshops

The American Nuclear Society periodically offers workshops through the Professional Development Committee to help you get your mind wrapped around the “administrivia” of taking the nuclear PE exam and the actual exam content. The workshops cover how to register for the exam and how the process differs from state to state, and provides an overview of the exam formats. For each of the four basic skill areas—nuclear power, nuclear fuel cycle, interaction of radiation, and nuclear criticality/kinetics/neutronics—the instructor walks through the topics and the skills tested within each topic. During the course, example questions are presented in depth, and you’ll have an opportunity to work some problems on your own and then review them with the group.

And the best part… [drumroll, please!]

ANS will provide you with a study guide, including a sample exam, along with additional helpful resources!

In addition to assisting you in preparing for the test, ANS supports the development of the test as well. So, once you get your license, you can step up and be instrumental in developing and grading the test. What a great way to give back to the profession!

Please join us in Chicago for the next “Preparing for the Nuclear Engineering Professional Engineering Exam” session at the June ANS Meeting. The session will be held on Sunday, June 24, 2012,  from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.

NOTE: If you are not attending the ANS meeting in June to participate in the workshop, you can order a copy of the newly revised PE study guide—as a
downloadable PDF file, or as a CD-ROM or a hard-copy three-ring binder version mailed to you—from the ANS Store .



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.

Spent fuel at Fukushima Daiichi safer than asserted

By Will Davis

In recent days, a number of articles have been printed that assert that a grave danger exists at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station. These articles claim that this danger exists due to the condition of the spent nuclear fuel at the site and the supposedly shaky condition of its storage and care. Two examples:

The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Is Far From Over” by Robert Alvarez

Fukushima Daiichi Site: Cesium-137 is 85 times greater than at Chernobyl Accident” by Akio Matsumura

These articles are highly deceptive. The occurrence of a cataclysmic release of radioactive material as surmised is hinged upon the occurrence of so many statistically impossible events that it is certain to be a practical impossibility. Since the assertions continue to gain a wider audience, however, it is necessary to examine them and make a realistic assessment of their likelihood.

Assertion 1: The spent fuel pools, particularly at Fukushima Daiichi No. 4 plant (1F-4), are liable to collapse

Since shortly after the Tohoku quake and tsunami, TEPCO has continually inspected the buildings at the site for physical integrity. More importantly, TEPCO has conducted seismic safety studies of all the reactor buildings; the results of these studies are linked below, which show that the reactor buildings are safe in the event of further (even severe) earthquakes.

Submission of Reports about the study regarding current seismic safety and reinforcement of reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

Important Report from TEPCO” (particularly items dated April 5)

“At 11:04 pm on April 1, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake centered in the coast of Fukushima Prefecture occurred. Hama-dori of Fukusihma Prefecture registered intensity 5 lower on the Japanese seismic (intensity) scale of 7. No abnormalities were detected at facilities for water injection into the reactors, nitrogen gas injection, cooling of spent fuel pool, and the treatment of highly contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. They all operate normally after the quake. As for the degree of the shake of the reactor buildings, Unit 6’s reactor building’s foundation registered 40.7 gal in horizontal direction and 19.4 gal in vertical direction.

We, TEPCO, evaluate earthquake-proof safety by developing Design Basis Earthquake Ground Motion Ss as large-scale quake which would possibly occur in future. For example, the degree of shake of Unit 6’s reactor building’s foundation against the Design Basis Earthquake Ground Motion is 448 gal in horizontal direction and 415 gal in vertical direction (which is around 10 times large in horizontal way and around 20 times large in vertical way compared with the quake occurred on April 1, 2012). We assess that the level of this Design Basis Earthquake Ground Motion is almost same as the one recorded for the Tohoku–Pacific Ocean Earthquake. Based on the Motion, we simulated the damaged situation of the current reactor buildings of Unit 1 to 4, having implemented quake response analysis for the reactor buildings as well as equipments and pipes which are important in terms of safety. As a result, we confirmed that there are no negative signal, such as shear/twist of quake-proof walls of buildings, the fact that the stress of facilities/piping lowers the standard value, and the fact that buildings collapse and facilities/ piping lose their functions.”

NUREG /CR-4982, “Severe Accidents in Spent Fuel Pools in support of Generic Safety Issue 82,” Brookhaven National Laboratory, indicates that the likelihood of seismically induced spent fuel pool failure may be as low as 1 X 10-10 occurrences per reactor year, which is a statistically insignificant rate of occurrence.

From the above, it can easily be ascertained that further seismic damage to the buildings is not likely. It should be added that TEPCO is continuing to remove material (both debris and structural material) from the upper levels of the damaged reactor buildings—further reducing their mass, and the amount of mass at higher levels that could induce larger swaying moment. Thus, seismically induced collapse of the reactor buildings (as asserted in various articles penned by activists) is very unlikely. Assertion 1: False

Assertion 2: The spent fuel pool at 1F-4 is in particularly dire structural condition

TEPCO has continuously monitored the 1F-4 building for damage (having no damaged reactor in the building, it is the most widely accessible among 1F-1 through 1F-4, and thus most easily examined). TEPCO has also constructed, as a result of structural studies performed on the building, a steel-reinforced concrete support beneath the spent fuel pool at this plant. Photos are available at TEPCO “Completion of Installation of Supporting Structure…

TEPCO estimates, in fact, that the seismic safety margin of the 1F-4 building’s spent fuel pool is now improved 20 percent over the original condition. Thus, there is no basis to assertions that 1F-4’s spent fuel pool is in a dire condition. Assertion 2: False





Assertion 3: The spent fuel in these plants’ spent fuel pools could ignite, leading to a massive radiological release

This assertion is patently false. First, it is important to understand that in order for the fuel to ignite, it has to get hot—and in its present condition, submerged in spent fuel pools with redundant cooling systems and filtration systems, constant remote temperature monitoring, backup generating and pumping systems in mobile units in place (on standby), and high reach concrete pump trucks on site (if necessary), there is no chance of the fuel heating up in any significant way while it is in the pools in the buildings.

We’ve seen already that it’s unlikely that the buildings would be damaged in a quake—and we can surmise, given the manpower and equipment on site, that even if any sort of equipment leak or malfunction temporarily suspended cooling for the spent fuel, that malfunction would be quickly detected and fixed. So, it’s just not likely at all that the fuel would even begin to get noticeably hot in the spent fuel pools as-is now. Temperatures of the water in the spent fuel pools is currently in the ~30 °C and under range.

In order for apocalyptic assertions of a “fuel clad ignition and fire” to occur, moreover, the clad itself would need to be heated to incredible temperatures, which just isn’t possible. Ignition of the cladding (Zircalloy-2) on those fuel elements can occur roughly at 900 ºC in the proper conditions, but it’s important to note that, depending on the surrounding conditions (presence or absence of water vapor and oxygen content of the surroundings), the material may not ignite at that temperature anyway. From NUREG /CR-4982:

“The cladding on such fuel will not ignite until 900 ºC (1652 ºF), while the fuel melting point for UO2 fuel is 2880 ºC (5216 ºF).”

An online video shows Zirc-2 tube being heated with a blow torch (probably over 2000 ºC) and not catching fire. In point of fact, while the chemistry of rapid oxidation /combustion of Zirc cladding is complex, it just would not be possible under the conditions at the site. Further, even under the wild assumption that the buildings somehow collapsed, all of the other resources on site, and remotely off site, are still available to move in and provide cooling for the fuel.

In addition, the rate of heatup of the fuel depends on how long it’s been out of a reactor. According to NUREG /CR-4982, unless the spent fuel is recently discharged from an operating reactor (within 180 days), ignition of the clad is completely impossible in any situation, regardless. Experts have calculated that the heat output presently from the hottest of the spent fuel is only on the order of several hundred watts per element—a very insignificant amount in comparison to heating the material to between 900 ºC–2000 ºC in order to ignite it.

In addition, in order for a “cataclysmic” spread of the radionuclides contained in this spent fuel to occur, we can see that a massive fire is needed to both release the material and provide a driving head (or “loft”) to spread it to the winds. It’s clear that no such fire is possible, given the above information. The assertions simply fall apart.  Assertion 3: False  


In fact, all three assertions, as we’ve seen, fall apart at every turn—there’s no basis to assertions of shaky buildings, or a structurally failed 1F-4 plant, or the chance of zircalloy cladding fire, or billowing of the released material to the entire earth. Realistic, practical analysis, performed by personnel on site (TEPCO/NISA), nuclear professionals here in the United States with decades of experience in both theory and practice, and official peer-reviewed studies and documents (e.g., NUREG /CR-4982) show that the predictions of apocalypse being spread now are just as unlikely to occur as those predictions of apocalypse that were made then at the time of the accident.


The author expresses his gratitude for assistance in this analysis provided by John H. Bickel, Meredith Angwin, Margaret Harding, Leslie Corrice, Rod Adams, Cheryl Rofer, Bill Rodgers, Paul Bowersox, Rick Michal, Steve Skutnik, and Dan Yurman.

Will Davis is the author of the nuclear energy blog “Atomic Power Review,” and is a member of the American Nuclear Society.  A former US Navy reactor operator, Davis finds his calling to be presenting the public with information about nuclear energy technology and its history.

ANS participates in the USA Science & Engineering Festival

American Nuclear Society exhibit

Visitors learn about nuclear science & technology at the ANS display during the USA Science & Engineering Festival going on this weekend in Washington, DC.

4th Annual Texas Atomic Film Festival

The 4th annual Texas Atomic Film Festival (TAFF) is being held April 26 to May 3, 2012. The festival attracts short films (3 to 5 minutes) produced by students in nuclear engineering courses at the University of Texas at Austin. A public screening of the films, which focus on nuclear and energy related topics, is being held on April 26 at 12:30 pm at the UT Student Activities Center auditorium.

The goal of TAFF is to provide an opportunity for students to take creative approaches to convey scientific information through short films. Griffin Gardner and Alex Fay are this year’s media judge and technical judge, respectively, and awards will be given in four categories:

  • Best Film
  • Technical Content
  • Editing
  • Audience Award

The Audience Award is based on the number of “likes” accumulated by each film through the Facebook social plugin available on the TAFF website for the 2012 entries.

Please visit the TAFF website, view some of the films in the 2012 Entries section, and vote for your favorites by clicking on the “like” button. You can also follow TAFF and make comments through Twitter by using the hashtag #TAFF2012.

TAFF includes 11 films this year:

  1. How Dangerous is Low Dose Radiation?
  2. An Outlook on Future Energy Solutions
  3. The Legend of HP-Man
  4. Radon—Hazards in the Home: Myths and Facts
  5. The Chicago Pile: A History
  6. The Influence of Nuclear Events on the Public Perception of Nuclear Science
  7. U.S. Electrical Power Production:  A Comparison of Energy Sources
  9. Special Report: Nuclear Terrorism
  10. From War to Peace: Non-Proliferation 101
  11. Nuclear by the Numbers

Other schools are invited to participate in next year’s TAFF. If you are interested, please contact Steve Biegalski.  Special thanks to Juan Garcia and Matt Mangum, of the Faculty Innovation Center at UT, for their continued support of TAFF.


The ANS Student Section of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

American Nuclear Society President Eric Loewen visited the ANS student section at the University of Illinois on Tuesday, March 27, followed by dinner with the Central Illinois ANS local section. This event was part of Loewen’s “March Madness” speaking tour, building toward the 2012 ANS Student Conference (which begins today in Las Vegas).  The occasion gave ANS Nuclear Cafe a chance to catch up with Valentyn Bykov, president of the ANS student section at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to discuss the section and its activities.

Social events


Valentyn Bykov:  “During their first two years, our students take general science and engineering classes along with students from all the other engineering disciplines. Since we are a small department (the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering/NPRE), we don’t see many of our fellow nuclear engineers during these two years. Therefore, ANS organizes many social events, providing opportunities for students to become better acquainted and to get to know each other. This also allows underclassmen to meet the upperclassmen, who often pass down advice based on their experience.”


Dr. Loewen addresses the Illinois ANS Student Section

“We take many engineering classes, most of which are highly technical. So, it’s very difficult to keep in mind the overall big picture. During the more difficult semesters, we all need to be reminded why we’re doing all this in the first place and recharge our motivation. So our ANS section organizes numerous trips to nuclear power plants and national labs, where students can see what kind of work nuclear engineers can do after they graduate, as well as understand how all these individual components come together, forming the big picture. It’s also a good opportunity to get industry insight on various topics,” said Bykov.


“We also make sure to stay in touch with people outside of the NPRE Department and the nuclear industry, mainly through outreach events,” he said. “When we ask people what do they think when you say nuclear engineering, we often hear about nuclear weapons, cooling towers and (more often than you’d think) the dangerous health effects of the microwave oven radiation. Our goal is to inform and educate, but also share why we think that industry nuclear is an interesting and exciting career choice. We organize and assist with several
Boy Scout merit badge events, in which young scouts learn about the science behind nuclear power and related career choices. Every March we hold a series of presentations and demonstrations during our university’s Engineering Open House, a two-day event during which over 20,000 people visit campus to see various engineering demonstrations created by students. We also try to be present during various non-engineering events; for example, we have a table next to other student organizations in an event organized during ‘Mom’s weekend,’ in which students and their visiting moms can see what various student organizations do on campus. Being usually the only engineering organization present at this event, our interactive demonstration of radiation sources is very popular. Many of the visitors want to talk to us about the nature of our organization, potential careers, details about Fukushima, and nuclear power in general.”

The future

Valentyn Bikov, Arthur Talpaert, Jason Peck, Eric Loewen, Thomas Dolan, Rizwan Uddin, Barclay Jones

“As for long-term goals for our student section, at this point our membership is composed almost entirely of nuclear engineering majors, most of whom are undergraduates,” he said. “One of our long-term goals is to get more people involved, especially from other departments. We believe that the nature of our trips and many of our other events would be relevant to other departments. We are also trying to extend our involvement with other departments (i.e., by cooperating with other students organization on joined events) and non-engineering events (like the aforementioned Mom’s weekend interactive presentation).”

“I feel like our ANS section is an extension of the students,” he added. “At times various students have an idea for an interesting event or a trip, and instead of leaving the organization up to the (already very busy) NPRE Department, the ANS student section will step in and handle everything. This gives more power to the students, as we can spread the word about the idea and, if there’s sufficient interest, organize the whole event without the need for the department to get involved.”

“This also works the other way around, when the department asks or encourages us to set up an event to address an issue they hear about in student feedback forms,” Bykov said. “For example, our university no longer has an operating research reactor (our TRIGA was shut down in the 1990s for political reasons), and many students feel they are ‘missing out’ on the related experiments. Therefore, our department suggested—and our student section is currently in the process of organizing—a visit to a university that has a working reactor, during which we would perform experiments to gain experience with research reactor operation. The goal is to first organize the visit and offer it simply as a trip for interested individuals, then in the future hopefully make the visit more frequently than once in a semester, and offer some kind of course credit in return. The whole effort is currently organized primarily between our ANS student section and the ANS student section at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.”

The Illinois ANS student section board. top row: Michael Cunningham, Robert Geringer, Cody Morrow; bottom row: Talisa Chambers, Valentyn Bykov, Molly Bilderback; not pictured: Carlos Altamirano

In closing

“Our ANS student section provides many ways in which to get involved, whether it’s getting advice on what class to take next semester, meeting nuclear power plant workers and talking to them about their job, practicing one’s teaching abilities with children and the general public, or one of the many other ways for nuclear engineering students to get involved in the ‘big picture,'” he concluded.




Kudankulam hot start within reach

Tamil Nadu provincial government support pulls rug out from under protest groups

By Dan Yurman

Tamil Nadu map

The long running controversy over the start of NPCIL’s Russian-built twin 1,000-MW VVER reactors at Kudankulam, in India, may be coming to an end.

The provincial government of Tamil Nadu, India’s southern-most state, said on March 20 that it was dropping its opposition to hot start and also withdrawing support from local anti-nuclear protests.  The decision follows more than six months of fence sitting despite pleas for support from the protest groups and counter pressure from the central government.

In return for supporting the nuclear plant, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha wants political air cover, and she named as her price the control of distribution of 100 percent of the electrical power from the plant. She’s not likely to get all of it and she knows it.

Jayalalitha’s demand carries political weight with the locals, however. It helps  preserve her position that is newly energized as a purveyor of political patronage in the form of access to electricity.  The region is ravaged by electricity shortages, so having some to allocate puts the Tamil Nadu government in a much more influential position than hanging with the protest groups.

Work resumes at reactor

What has happened as a result of the new-found support in Tamil Nadu is that work has resumed at the plant that is 95-percent complete. More than 1,000 local Indian workers and about 100 Russian technical staff re-entered the plant. The combined action of restart of work at the plant and the provincial government’s acceptance of a hot start date to take place in about two months generated spontaneous protest demonstrations of about 500 people on March 23, of which several hundred were arrested by police.  The protests then fizzled out, however.

The central Indian government had said in February that the protests were coming from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by supporters in the United States. The BBC reported on March 23, however, that among those arrested was the leader of a Tamil nationalist political party.

While it may be that separatist political groups had seized upon the reactor issue as a way to mobilize support for their causes, there is no way to assess how much of an influence they really have. In the world of politics, however, even the appearance of influence can have consequences.

The central government’s crackdown on the protest started within a few weeks of an official notice by the Russians that they were not happy with the delay of the start of the Kudankulam plants. Success there is the key to new deals and the credibility generally of Rosatom’s export program.

Handing out the juice

The transition of the Tamil Nadu central government from a position of neutrality regarding the protests to becoming a supporter of the reactors may have as much to do with political self-preservation as it does with political reality.

As it turns out, Tamil Nadu, like many other places, suffers from severe power shortages with frequent blackouts, with some areas having no electrical power. Nationwide, about 40 percent of the Indian population has no access to it, which is why the Indian government is committed to building about 20 Gwe of new nuclear power generating capacity over the next 15–20 years.

Having control over who gets the new electricity from the plant is a huge source of leverage relative to keeping political allies in line and is an effective method for demonstrating the lack of political power of the protesters and any separatist movement. This light bulb appears to be the one that lit up in the minds of the provincial government leadership, which is why they climbed down off their “neutral” position and endorsed the reactors over the protests of many of their constituents.

The Indian government’s Union Minister of State for Power K.C. Venugopal said on April 2 that a policy with regard to sharing of power from nuclear energy was in place and that the agency would not change it.

The minister’s response came as a result of media questions over Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha’s staking claim to the entire projected generation of 2,000 MW power from Kudankulam nuclear plant.

Venugopal said that there is a policy in which 50 percent of power from these plants would go to the home state where it is located. These norms have not been changed so far, he said.

As it turns out, NPCIL has already allocated 925 MW of power from the two reactors to Tamil Nadu. In the meantime, the central government has continued its crackdown on leaders of the anti-nuclear groups. The intensification of the government’s action came as the protests themselves were winding down and life was returning to normal.

Protests over but crackdown continues

The Indian government is furious with the delays of the hot start of the two reactors. NPCIL told the Hindustan Times on March 12 that the fact that the two units were postponed from hot start last August has cost the government US$50,000/day in lost revenue from new rate payers. While this may not seem like a lot of money to American eyes, in a developing nation like India, $50,000 a day in losses is more than enough to give government officials high blood pressure. It also sends them looking for someone to blame.

On April 2, the home ministry in the national government demanded that one of the leading organizers of the Tamil Nadu protests surrender his passport. S.P. Udayakumar, of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), told the Times of India that he will not do so despite the government’s assertion that there are charges pending against him and his organization for misappropriation of NGO funds to pay for the anti-nuclear protests.

The home ministry also raided two more NGOs alleged to have diverted funds from education and rural development programs to fuel the protests over the past six months. Subsequently, the government dropped charges against 178 people, while opposing bail for another 30 of those arrested. The government still has not revealed the names of the U.S. NGOs alleged to have provided funds to the protest groups.

Confidence building for India’s nuclear markets

As these developments were unfolding the government announced, perhaps buoyed with new confidence at having “defeated” the protests, that it planned to ink a deal with the Russians for two more 1000-MW reactors at Kudankulam. Overall, India plans to add 64 Gwe of power to its grid by 2032 to reduce the gap in rural electrification.

The United States remains locked out of the market by a supplier liability law that is orbiting in a kind of political limbo. The law is in the books, but the central government has so far not issued implementing regulations to give it operational status.

The Indian nuclear reactor market is said to be worth $150 billion. So far, the only firms making inroads are the Russians with projects at Kudankulam and the French with two planned reactors at Jaitapur, south of Mumbai on the country’s west coast.



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

Nuclear Matinee: Sustainable energy choices for the 21st century

This video takes the stance that climate change and sustainability of the global human enterprise are two of the most critical issues of the 21st century. If we are to tackle these problems effectively, we need to make prudent, evidence-based choices about energy. This is the story told in this short animated video—the first to be featured in the ANS Nuclear Cafe “Friday Matinee” series.

For more information and to continue the discussion, visit BraveNewClimate.

The ANS 2012 Thermal Hydraulics Young Professional Research Competition

By Elia Merzari

One of the missions of the American Nuclear Society’s Young Members Group is to promote participation of young members in the activities of the society. Boosting the involvement of young members in the technical programs of the society’s professional divisions is an important goal in this effort.

Every year since 2006, the Thermal Hydraulics Division (THD) and the Young Members Group (YMG) have organized the Thermal Hydraulics Young Professional Research Competition for ANS members with less than 5 years of professional experience after graduation or younger than 35 years old. The competition is also open to graduate students, but the first author of the summary is expected to present the work and be largely responsible for the research conducted.

Participants submit a summary to the ANS Winter Meeting, which undergoes the usual peer-review process. The accepted summaries and the corresponding presentations are then critiqued by a panel of judges organized by the THD at the winter meeting. The winner receives a plaque furnished by the THD.

The competition has enjoyed a growing success, in each of the last two years receiving 14 submissions or more. The majority of these summaries are from graduate students, but a growing number of papers comes from professionals working in national laboratories, research centers, and industry. The competition has proven to be an effective means for YMG members to become involved in THD activities—and vice versa. For example, I began my involvement in the YMG because of the competition, while, in turn, the THD also benefitted from the competition, with a significant increase in summary submissions observed in recent meetings, most of which are from young members.

Nathaniel Salpeter, the 2011 Winner, had this to say about the competition: “The Young Professional Thermal Hydraulics Competition was a constructive experience that provided a great platform not just for presenting my own research, but also for engaging with many extremely talented peers in a mutually beneficial setting where high quality research presentations, constructive peer review, and interaction with nuclear industry champions combine to form a model professional development competition.”

Overall, the Thermal Hydraulics Young Professional Research Competition is a remarkable success story of cooperation between the YMG and the technical divisions. Experience has shown that the dedication of some key people is essential. If you wish to volunteer to organize this competition or a similar one sponsored by a different division, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are always looking to expand on this positive experience!

The next Thermal Hydraulics Young Professional Research Competition will be held in San Diego in conjunction with the ANS Winter Meeting in November. For more information, check the competition announcement or contact Wade Marcum. The submissions website for the ANS Winter Meeting opens on April 1.



Elia Merzari is the current YMG secretary. He works as a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, where his research interests include nuclear thermal-hydraulics, modeling and simulation of nuclear reactors, and accelerator driven systems.