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INL National University Consortium

1. Headline
​By Erica Curless

Dr. Yi Xie is the inaugural Glenn T. Seaborg Distinguished Postdoctoral Associate at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Since starting her two-year appointment in August, Xie has conducted research at the Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC) using her background in the development and design of metallic fuels.

Xie's research focuses on designing and fabricating advanced metallic fuels that eliminate the problem of fuel cladding chemical interaction (FCCI), which causes cladding failures that can jeopardize the safety of reactors.

Cladding is the first safety shell for fuel inside a nuclear reactor. Xie said during burnup, which is fission in a reactor, lanthanides are produced as fission products. They can migrate to the fuel surface and diffuse with cladding, which results in the breach where fuel can leak into the coolants. She is developing advanced U-Zr and U-Pu-Zr metallic fuels that mitigate the lanthanide-induced FCCI problem when operating in the reactor, improving safety.

"The research helps to reduce risks of incidents, and thus make the reactor more reliable," Xie said.

Xie's work with lanthanides fits the mission with the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute (GTSI) because its namesake co-discovered multiple elements, including plutonium, and committed his life's work to the advancement of actinide chemistry. Seaborg's research on lanthanides and actinides (also known as f-block elements) has had a huge impact on modern society. The mission of the GTSI at INL, launched in 2018, is to nurture talented researchers who have specific interest in actinide chemistry as it relates to basic science, the nuclear fuel cycle, reactor operation and engineering, waste minimization and treatment, and other technical fields.

Xie also is the principal investigator for another project sponsored by INL's Laboratory-directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The goal is to both improve the understanding of the retention capability of fission products in liquid sodium and to investigate the corrosion effects on structural materials inside a reactor, she said.

This research is to help ensure the public and environment are protected from the potential release of radionuclides during normal and abnormal operations of reactors. With redundant safety systems present in a reactor, a radionuclide release is unlikely, but investigation is still needed to understand the consequences of a release, where the radionuclides go and how they react, Xie said. This research will help to solve the issues and gaps between limited mechanistic investigations of fission products release and the needs of an assessment.

"Both projects ultimately improve reactor safety," Xie said.

Since starting in August, Xie has published four papers on her research and is working on more publications for later this year.

Xie, a native of southern China and a legal permanent resident of the United States, earned her doctorate in nuclear engineering at the Ohio State University and a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering at University of Science and Technology of China. Prior to joining INL, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Nuclear science piqued her interest as an undergrad when she attended many lectures and seminars before choosing nuclear engineering as her career path. Xie wanted to study in the United States to continue the advancement of nuclear science.

This highly competitive postdoctoral appointment provides Xie with a structured environment centered on specific research topics while allowing flexibility to further her interests. The full support of the national laboratory, along with energetic and talented colleagues, offer an excellent opportunity for development of a rewarding career in this field.

"This is a very good opportunity," Xie said. Working at a national laboratory is important because of the collaboration with the other researchers at the MFC, she said, especially mentor Dr. Michael Benson, a research scientist in Fuel and Experimental Assembly and Development. The distinguished postdoctoral appointment is a big bonus for early career research scientists.

5/1/2019May 2019
1. Headline
​By Erica Curless

Idaho National Laboratory is proud of its diverse Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) portfolio. These projects attract promising young scientists and engineers while encouraging collaboration with a range of prominent collaborators.

Currently, INL has several LDRD projects that include National University Consortium university collaborators, including four that are going on their second year of joint research including projects with North Carolina State University, the Ohio State University and the University of New Mexico. These projects showcase research that aims to improve the safety of nuclear reactors, prevent failures in the nation's power grids, and reduce human error in a new generation of microreactors.

Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the LDRD projects help INL maintain and develop scientific and engineering capabilities in areas of strategic importance to the nation.

The projects encompass the most promising ideas and enable cutting-edge research and development. The flexibility allows the labs to assemble experts from different fields into collaboration teams in an environment that encourages and supports creativity.

INL senior researcher Abderrafi Ougouag said advancing science is important, but equally crucial is the development of early career scientists.

"What really counts ultimately is the talents," he said.

Ougouag has participated in several LDRD projects, including current research to produce a software tool to make the methods for analyzing the safety of reactors more rigorous with professors and students from North Carolina State University.

Ougouag hopes INL hires an NCSU student working on this project because he's the most qualified person to write a how-to manual for the method and software.

Here is a look at four active LDRD projects that include an NUC collaborator.

Systematic Error Control in Cross-Section Library Generation for Novel Reactors: Coarse Energy Groups Consideration

INL invited NCSU, specifically a team led by Maria Avramova, to join this LDRD project that will ultimately make the methods for analyzing the safety of reactors more rigorous by developing a software tool to quantify the error in the entire sequence of cross-section preparation steps from evaluated nuclear data files to libraries suitable for full-core reactor computations. This tool didn't previously exist.

Maria Avramova

Nuclear reactors produce energy by splitting nuclei, the centers of atoms. Such fission events are triggered by neutrons. The likelihood of fission taking place is a function of the relative velocity of the moving neutrons and the almost fixed nuclei. That probability is termed the reaction cross section. 

It is important to categorize the cross sections as a function of neutron velocity. It is common to divide the entire energy range over which neutrons occur into a collection of non-overlapping fine bins and then to evaluate the cross section average value for neutrons in each energy bin or energy groups. 

Ougouag, the principal investigator for INL, said the LDRD project focuses on producing energy group structures that quantify and control the uncertainty or error that occurs in group cross sections. This is done for both the coarse and ultra-fine group structures. He described the process of gradually reducing the number of energy bins from a very large number down to a few tens of groups as great art.  

"We are putting the science into the art," Ougouag said. "When we predict the reactor is safe, we know it is safe."

INL is the lead on the ultra-fine energy groups, and NCSU's Associate Professor Maria Avramova is the lead on the optimization of coarse energy groups.

Modeling of a Novel Fission Heated Transient Nuclear Detector

This LDRD project is developing a nuclear heating sensor that will reduce many uncertainties in the measurements and experiments conducted at INL's Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) Facility. TREAT performs transient testing of nuclear fuels by exposing them to extreme conditions to develop more resilient and longer lasting fuels.

INL's Nic Woolstenhulme is the principal investigator along with University of New Mexico Professor Cassiano de Oliveira.

Nick Woolstenhulme

INL is producing the sensor while UNM is focusing on thermal and performance modeling, which helps perfect the sensor design.

The sensor is self-heated – using fissile matter – and ultrasonic, meaning it uses soundwaves to measure temperature. The sensor is essentially a calorimeter, detecting how much energy is transferred from the reactor to the sample under irradiation.

This is important because fuel samples tested at TREAT are exposed to increasing energy levels ramping up to sample melting point.

"They are using the sensor to calibrate the reactor itself," said Joshua Daw, an INL research scientist and engineer. "It will reduce a lot of uncertainties in the measurements they do right now."

Human Reliability Analysis (HRA) for Microreactors

The Ohio State University is collaborating with INL on research to predict and minimize the likelihood of human error in a new generation of microreactors. These portable reactors aren't yet built but are of interest to many industries that need power in remote areas and places not served by the power grid.
Ron Boring (left)

OSU is doing preliminary work to identify potential technologies and designs for microreactors and the human interfaces. The team is building a simplified simulator to run though scenarios and identify the possibilities for human error.

"A lot of it is just being aware of human interactions and ensuring part of the design process is preventing any possible errors," said INL's Ron Boring.
Carol Smidts

"INL couldn't have done this project without student resources, and that's the value of LDRD," Boring said. Professor Carol Smidts is the OSU principal investigator.

"We are doing something no one else has been able to do," he said.

High Performance Computing-based Dynamically Adaptive Protection Schemes for Electric Grid

This LDRD project will predict potential scenarios, and ultimately prevent problems that could cause cascading failures in the electric power grid, which is a challenge for the whole scientific community.

The urgency comes from the increasing complexity of the electric grid, reducing grid inertia, and power blackouts that impact millions of people and services across the nation such as the 2003 Northeast blackout and the 2011 Southwest blackout.

INL is collaborating with the University of New Mexico along with input from Idaho Power in Boise and Colorado State University.

INL is using a cluster of supercomputers integrated with digital real-time simulators at INL to analyze thousands of potential problems faster than real time. INL is using physics-based modeling and data-driven approaches including machine learning, while UNM and associate professor Svetlana Poroseva are complementing the modeling and analysis with a mathematical approach.

Svetlana Poroseva

A bonus in this project is working with Idaho Power to get a real-world view from an actual utility, said INL's Mayank Panwar, a research scientist and group lead for the Power and Energy Systems Department.

Ultimately when the project is complete, Panwar said INL will have a realistic testbed for Idaho Power or any utility to analyze cascading failures without having to compromise the actual power grid.

Mayank Panwar

"This is really important if you consider any infrastructure that has electricity as the backbone of it," Panwar said. "We're trying to emulate problems and then accurately find practical solutions for them."

5/1/2019May 2019
1. Headline
​From Marianne Walck, Science & Technology deputy laboratory director and National University Consortium director:

I am pleased to announce that Dayna Daubaras has been selected to serve as the deputy director of the National University Consortium (NUC) effective April 22. As the NUC deputy director, Dayna will work with the NUC's five research universities (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, the Ohio State University, Oregon State University and University of New Mexico) to continue to build and foster strategic partnerships between universities and INL researchers.

Dayna succeeds Marsha Bala, who has moved to a new position as the Nuclear Energy Innovative Capabilities Strategic Integration director on behalf of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy. Marsha spent many years developing and championing NUC into a very impactful consortium. Please join me in thanking Marsha for her exceptional dedication and service.

The NUC deputy director is a part-time position. Dayna will continue in her current role as a staff scientist in the Chemical and Radiation Measurement department in Energy and Environment Science and Technology. Congratulations to both Dayna and Marsha on their new roles!

5/1/2019May 2019
2. Research
​A tool for visualizing damage to materials made to withstand the harshest conditions inside a nuclear reactor is now being used to examine some of nature’s more delicate species.

Tiny imperfections in nuclear fuel rods or changes to reactor components caused by the bombardment of radiation can have big impacts on performance and safety.

Few methods exist to detect these problems without destroying the specimen itself.

That’s why, for more than 40 years, nuclear energy researchers have used Idaho National Laboratory’s Neutron Radiography Reactor (NRAD), a 250-kilowatt research reactor, to peer inside nuclear fuel and other reactor components.

Now, after a series of upgrades, INL scientists hope this powerful imaging technology can assist researchers in other scientific fields as well.

Idaho State University biology student Amanda Smolinski is collaborating with engineers at NRAD to make images of Dragmacidon lunacharta, a sea sponge that is known to accumulate heavy metals in waters with high levels of pollution.
Amanda Smolinski places sea sponges in front of the digital neutron imaging system at NRAD’s North Radiography Station. Smolinski hopes to use neutron radiographs to detect cadmium pollution in the sponges.
The NRAD images will help Smolinski to learn more about how to find and clean up ocean pollution. In turn, Smolinski’s project will help NRAD establish itself as an imaging capability for a wide range of scientific pursuits, from learning about how battery chemistry changes during discharge to exploring the innards of dinosaur bones.

Neutrons versus X-rays
Neutrons are similar to X-rays in that they penetrate a specimen to create an image of internal structures. But neutrons are different. Instead of interacting with the electrons of an atom, like an X-ray, neutrons interact with the nucleus.

Where X-rays show harder substances such as bone and teeth, neutron radiography shows the softer components of a specimen, especially substances containing hydrogen. Neutrons interact with these substances in a way that allows researchers to create images of internal soft structures using either traditional film or, now, digital imaging.

Smolinski is using neutron imaging to examine the dried soft tissues of sea sponges for signs of cadmium, a naturally occurring metal that is used in metal manufacturing, the pulp and paper industry, and phosphate fertilizers.

While some sea creatures need trace amounts of cadmium for their metabolism, high levels can be toxic for fish and other ocean wildlife. If researchers could learn more about how sponges absorb cadmium, it could help increase knowledge about how cadmium affects other sea life, where pollution is located, and how to mitigate its effects.

The six sea sponges examined at NRAD.
An X-ray image of six sea sponges containing cadmium.
A neutron radiograph of the same six sea sponges taken at INL’s NRAD facility. The neutron radiographs show more internal details of the sponge’s structure, including possible cadmium contamination.
Because D. lunacharta and similar species of sponge are so widespread, they could serve as a useful biomarker to gauge levels of pollution in the world’s oceans, said Smolinski.

“They can be used to classify the type and, hopefully, quantify the amount of pollution in the marine environment from which they are harvested,” Smolinski said. “I’d like to use that information to create pollution maps.”

The pollution maps could then be used to trace the pollution to its source and help with cleanup efforts.

Creating a neutron radiograph
To create the images, Smolinski offered her sponge specimens to NRAD, where her husband, Andrew Smolinski, works as a nuclear facility system engineer.

Researchers at NRAD have developed digital neutron radiography and tomography capabilities using digital cameras that are shielded against radiation.

Without digital radiography, taking a full set of film radiographs might take a month or more, and previous generations of computers might take several months to reconstruct a 3D image from hundreds of film images.

Using the new digital cameras and state-of-the-art computers, researcher Dr. Aaron Craft, an R&D scientist at INL developing advanced neutron imaging systems, recently produced 421 radiographs in four hours, and reconstruction of a 3D image took under an hour.

“This new system allows us to perform neutron tomography in less than a day, which makes it a practical research tool for scientific applications such as this,” Craft said. “It opens up new avenues of collaboration with universities, museums and other research institutions.”

A neutron radiograph (top) of “Bob,” a cadmium-free sponge that researcher Amanda Smolinski uses as a reference to determine image quality, compared with an X-ray (bottom) of “Bob.”
Andrew Smolinski said most researchers don’t fully understand what they can learn by using NRAD. “If we’re going to branch this technology out, we have to show researchers what we can do,” he said. “We have to convince people that this is a place where you want to bring your specimen.”

When NRAD was first constructed, researchers were limited to a “short beam line” that is 8-feet long. But a restoration of the facility completed in 2015 restored a “long beam line,” 55-feet long, which is able to image much larger specimens. The restoration allows researchers to use the long beam line to image non-nuclear specimens without interrupting nuclear fuels research conducted with the short beam line.

These new capabilities have allowed Amanda Smolinski to explore the anatomy of sea sponges in a way that would be impossible without neutron radiography.

With the images from NRAD, Amanda Smolinski can map the interior structures of her sponges in an effort to learn how and where they accumulate cadmium.

Eventually, Amanda Smolinski hopes to branch out to other species. One day, she hopes that agencies may even use sea sponges to soak up pollution.

“If the sponges are able to absorb the pollution in appreciable amounts, and if they can keep it locked in their biological structure over the long term, they may end up being useful for the remediation of the pollution we are tracking,” she said.

In the meantime, Andrew Smolinski and his colleagues have lined up another research project involving dinosaur bones. If all goes well, these projects will inspire researchers in more scientific fields to use the NRAD facility.

As for Amanda Smolinski’s sponges, the early results look promising: After examining neutron radiographs of her sea sponges, she’s found what she believes are cadmium deposits. Next she plans to run similar experiments with sea snails and a different species of sea sponge.
5/1/2019May 2019
5. INL HighlightINL 70th logo
​On Feb. 18, 1949, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) made a decision that has had a lasting positive impact on Idaho and the nation: It decided to build the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS) in eastern Idaho.In 2005, Congress designated the Idaho site as the nation’s lead nuclear energy research and development laboratory. At that point, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was born.

Feb. 18, 2019, marks the 70th anniversary of the federal government installation in eastern Idaho.

Over that time, INL has played a central role in the development of the commercial nuclear energy industry and supported U.S. Naval nuclear propulsion technology.

INL built and operated 52 original nuclear reactors. Today, the laboratory works to extend the lives of U.S. commercial nuclear reactors that generate 19 percent of America’s electricity and more than half of our carbon-free electricity.
Materials Test Reactor (operated from 1952-1970)
INL also works with industry to develop, demonstrate and deploy next-generation reactors.

The seven-decade evolution of INL has extended the laboratory’s reach beyond nuclear energy. INL is a world leader in cybersecurity and power grid resiliency.

The laboratory also is a leader in broader clean energy research, including electric vehicle batteries, biomass, integration of renewables such as wind and solar into the power grid, and development of integrated energy systems that will allow industry to produce products more efficiently while reducing carbon emissions.

“We are incredibly proud of our R&D history and grateful to those who came before us at INL,” said Laboratory Director Mark Peters. “But, even as we celebrate 70 successful years, all of us at INL are focused on the future. We are determined to help ensure America’s safety and prosperity for decades to come through our clean energy and national security research.”

Seven decades ago, Idaho’s leading citizens and policymakers lobbied the federal government to build the NRTS in the Gem State.

People such as Idaho Falls Mayor Tom Sutton, newspaper publisher E.F. McDermott and businessman Bill Holden knew the NRTS would serve the nation by enabling the use of atomic energy for electricity production.

They also anticipated that the NRTS would benefit eastern Idaho’s economy. That proved true 70 years ago and continues today.

INL contractor Battelle Energy Alliance is Idaho’s sixth largest private employer. The laboratory’s total economic output exceeds $2 billion, and in the recent fiscal year, INL spent more than $148 million with Idaho businesses.

5/1/2019May 2019
5. INL Highlight
Idaho National Laboratory and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have entered into an agreement aimed at bolstering a cooperative effort to expand and strengthen nuclear installation safety around the world.

Under a Practical Arrangements agreement signed Dec. 6, INL will support IAEA and its 170 member states with peer review expertise, technical assistance and advisory services. The agreement also offers INL resources for IAEA scientific visits, fellowships and meetings. The agreement, the first of its kind involving IAEA and INL, is valid for three years and can be extended, according to an IAEA announcement.

“It opens a continuing dialogue, and allows more direct access to understand current IAEA issues that INL could help resolve,” said Peter Wells, chief operations officer of the lab’s Nuclear Science and Technology directorate. Because IAEA helps “embarking countries” in their development of nuclear energy infrastructure, the agreement is likely to raise INL’s profile around the world, he said.
IAEA regularly enters similar agreements with the governing authorities of member nations and even hospitals. While INL has a long history of support for IAEA — from 2009 to early 2017, Wells was stationed at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, where he worked in the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety — the agreement allows a more direct exchange of information, he said. The agreement is valid for three years and can be extended.

“This agreement consolidates our cooperation, and work under the agreement will contribute to facilitating the exchange of safety-relevant experience and information,” said Juan Carlos Lentijo, IAEA deputy director general and head of its Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. “This will help countries develop the technical knowledge they need.”

Both INL and IAEA date back to the early days of nuclear energy. Established through the United Nations in 1957 as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization, IAEA is an independent, intergovernmental science and technology organization. It establishes nonbinding safety principles, requirements and guidelines for its member states.

IAEA reported having 502 active technical cooperation projects and 12 active coordinated research projects in 2018. It assists members in planning for and using nuclear science and technology to generate electricity and facilitate the transfer of technology and knowledge in a sustainable manner. It develops nuclear safety standards and promotes the achievement and maintenance of high levels of safety in nuclear energy applications. Through its inspection system, the IAEA ensures that member states comply with their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other agreements.

INL dates back to 1949, when it was established as the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station. Now part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratory complex, it has been designated the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development.
5/1/2019May 2019
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