Ep 404: Anna Erickson - Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology
Ryan Howell [00:01:00] Welcome, everybody. This is another episode of Titans of Nuclear. My name is Ryan Howell, and I'm here on the campus of Georgia Tech with Professor Anna Erickson. So, welcome.
Anna Erickson [00:01:10] Thank you, Ryan. Thank you for having me on the podcast.
Ryan Howell [00:01:14] We always like to hear where your background was, where you grew up, and what you did in your childhood. So, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Anna Erickson [00:01:22] Well, great question. So I guess we're going back to the dark times. Well, first of all, this is Titans of Nuclear, and I'm so honored to be here on this podcast. Tremendous program, so I'm really appreciative to be able to participate. So what makes nuclear different from other energy sources? We often hear that from our students as they come visit the program. Well, this is the question that really got me into nuclear. When we think about nuclear energy, there's really nothing that's comparable to it in terms of energy density. I remember I was five years old picking up newspaper clippings about Chernobyl to read to my baby sister. Ultimately horrifying my mother, but that's when my journey in nuclear began.
Ryan Howell [00:02:11] Where were you living at the time?.
Anna Erickson [00:02:12] I was in Russia at that time, the other side of Russia. As far from Chernobyl as you can be, in fact, very close to Japan. But obviously, that accident resonated throughout the entire world and everybody was reading about it at the time, a few years post accident. So, I actually collected information about Chernobyl for a while as a kid, and then I proceeded majoring in nuclear physics throughout my high school. And then I came to America. In 2001, I was basically visiting my mother who lived here at the time, and I wanted to catch up on English because I wasn't speaking English very well. We actually learned Japanese back where I grew up instead of English. And she said, "Well, why don't you stay here and take some classes in English?" So, a sort of immersive experience.
Anna Erickson [00:03:03] And the next thing I know, after going to community college for a couple of years, I ended up at Oregon State, basically visiting the campus with a friend of mine. And as we were driving through campus, I saw a building called Radiation Center. And my friend, who knew that I had a fascination with nuclear energy, he said, "Do you want to stop and see?" I said, "Well, sure." So we stopped and I asked somebody at the reception if we could tour the reactor. And luckily, Professor Todd Palmer was in attendance at that time, and he gave me this most memorable tour of the TRIGA reactor. And I said, "Wow, I just want to be here." So I went to Oregon State for the graduate degree. And man, never do I regret that. I think that was one of the best life experiences.
Ryan Howell [00:03:53] Yeah, that's great. So then you went to school there, and then how did you get involved with the National Labs?
Anna Erickson [00:03:59] Well, I was at Oregon State, and one of the things that I wanted to do is to see what's the future for advanced reactors. I was obsessed with anything that's non light-water at that time, in particular, liquid metal cooled reactors. One of the things that actually was very helpful is interacting with faculty through both coursework as well as the American Nuclear Society. I was actually Co-President or Vice President, I can't remember anymore. And a faculty member suggested to contact a colleague of his at Argonne National Lab who was working at the time on a liquid lead cooled reactor called SSTAR, Small, Secure, Transportable Autonomous Reactor. And I said, "Wow, that's a dream internship.".
Anna Erickson [00:04:52] So, I went to Argonne. This was past my junior year. I went there again that winter, and then I went for the third time the next summer between undergraduate and graduate schools. This was a fascinating experience. I carried it throughout grad school. I actually had internships at Lawrence Livermore Lab as a grad student, and now I run a consortium, a consortium that actually works with 12 National Labs. We have a lot of contact with National Labs, and I try to visit at least one lab about monthly.
Ryan Howell [00:05:32] That's great. Yeah, tell us more about the consortium and technology. How does that work?
Anna Erickson [00:05:36] So, National Nuclear Security Administration runs, at this point, four different consortia. They just awarded the newest one. We decided to compete for a consortium back in 2018. It's a five year commitment, $25 million investment by the National Nuclear Security Administration with a goal to create a pipeline of students to pass them from universities to National Labs. So, to convince them to go to the National Labs to work. And we're now in the fourth year of that. So part of the consortium, we have 12 universities and 12 National Laboratories, and our students get to spend their summers.
Ryan Howell [00:06:19] So they kind of bounce around to different places, or?
Anna Erickson [00:06:22] Not necessarily bouncing around, but they choose a lab that is very closely aligned to their research interests.
Ryan Howell [00:06:29] So it's more a focus of which one they want to partner with.
Anna Erickson [00:06:30] And a lot of times what we see is that projects that the students work on during the summer turn into lifelong relationships. They end up going to that lab for their postdoc and then later become staff scientists there. It's a very good experience for our students.
Ryan Howell [00:06:43] Sure. That's great and that's great for them to be able to get involved and dig in a little deeper before they just go out into industry and don't know exactly what they want to do. I'm a big fan of the co-op program and getting involved in what you think you want to work on. It's a good way to decide early. So how did that transition into now, you're leading this Laboratory for Advanced Nonproliferation and Safety?
Anna Erickson [00:07:06] Yes. This has a little bit of a back story to when I tried to find my voice as a faculty member. I interviewed at Georgia Tech in 2011. I was still a grad student at MIT at that time. And I was getting ready to graduate when Georgia Tech contacted me to come and interview. And I said, "Hmm, the South. That's so different from New England and Massachusetts." And I talked to a friend of mine who actually went to Georgia Tech, and then we were at MIT together for a while and then he was back to Atlanta. And he said, "Well, what are you going to lose? Come interview and see Atlanta for yourself." And it was in February. So, if you've been to New England in February, you know that there's usually horrific weather with winds and snow storms.
Ryan Howell [00:07:58] Cold and lots of snow.
Anna Erickson [00:07:59] Just wonderful, wonderful winter. Especially if you park your car at the curbside and you have to dig a new space for yourself every time. So here I was in February, landing at the airport in my down coat and suitcase full of sweaters. And Atlanta greeted me with 70 degree weather. And I interviewed for a couple of days here at Georgia Tech. And I said, "Wow, there is life in the winter after all." So I made a point of communicating to Georgia Tech, saying that, "I think there's a good opportunity for me to fit in this program here," which was very focused on either reactor engineering or medical health physics. But there was nothing, really, on nonproliferation or bridging the two communities.
Anna Erickson [00:08:46] One of the initiatives that I have undertaken when I started at Georgia Tech is to really make these two groups talk to each other. So hence, it's Laboratory for Advanced Nuclear Nonproliferation and Safety, issues spanning the entire fuel cycle from the reactor design and the safety aspects of it to nonproliferation, materials control, forensics, etc. And interestingly in the beginning, I was told, "Well, you're trying to do too much. You will not get your tenure unless you have a very narrow focus." And I said, "Well, I'll take my chances. And if I don't get the tenure, at least I will try."
Ryan Howell [00:09:26] Have a little fun on the way, sure.
Anna Erickson [00:09:27] Exactly. Well, this turned into a very good opportunity for our students. They actually loved the fact that, regardless of what you do, whether you're computational or lab, you get to experience multiple aspects of research. Even the students that are computational in my lab, I make them do lab work. So that way, they graduate with knowing how detectors work or why they make certain decisions when it comes to setting up an experiment. So, this laboratory actually turned into a nice pipeline of students to the National Labs. We've graduated 11 PhDs in the past decade, and I want to say about more than half of them are at National Labs and three of them now at the university, so faculty members all like that.
Ryan Howell [00:10:16] That's great. So what are you currently teaching?
Anna Erickson [00:10:20] This is a great question. About three years ago, we decided to explore something new for our graduate students. I partnered with the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs here at Georgia Tech, and as the name suggests, it's named after Senator Nunn. And we actually ended up working with Senator Nunn on this new program. In fact, I hear a rumor he's going to be at our class on Monday.
Ryan Howell [00:10:46] All right.
Anna Erickson [00:10:46] We actually hosted him quite a few times, mostly virtual, in our courses. So what we created is something unique. It's a new graduate certificate that blends together nuclear engineering and technology and the policy and international affairs aspect of it. Let me give you an example. What's happening in the world right now? We all understand that as far as nuclear weapon countries, we're down to three very big ones. It used to be two; it used to be a bipolar world, Russia versus the United States, or I should say, Soviet Union, during the Cold War. But now China is emerging as another leader in nuclear as a nuclear empire in terms of producing massive amounts of warheads and weapons. So how do we deal with this world? What type of agreements are needed?
Anna Erickson [00:11:47] And what we need to understand is that this is not just a technology issue, it's also policy and implementation, so diplomacy, etc. We are down to the last agreement between Russia and the United States, the New START treaty. It's actually set to expire in 2026. But as we've heard recently, Vladimir Putin decided that he may pull out of this agreement.
Anna Erickson [00:12:14] Why was New START important for Russia-US relations? Well, number one, it limited the number of strategic weapons that are deployed around the world or around Russia for decades. The second, it allowed the inspectors or people that are affiliated with nuclear weapons inspection to enter the facilities and actually conduct verification. Well, we haven't done that since 2020, so we really don't have any insight as to what's going on.
Anna Erickson [00:12:43] Now, there are a few limitations to that agreement. In particular, it covers nothing about what we've all heard on the news, so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons. Some people refer to them as tactical, which I stand by is probably not the correct way to look at it. There's no such thing as tactical, really. Everything is more or less strategic, right? But those weapons, they do not get covered under any agreements.
Anna Erickson [00:13:12] So what do we do with China? We have nothing between the US and China right now. So, we have this big problem on our hands. And the next generation of scientists, diplomats, and policymakers need to be aware of the global problem of the technology, nuclear modernization efforts, and the policy and the implementation of that. So, we launched this new certificate to address this gap, the limitation that we currently see in the education system. The certificate caters to both nuclear engineering students, as well as Sam Nunn policy students. The certificate is in its third year, so we had a lot of success and good feedback from the students.
Ryan Howell [00:13:56] That's fantastic news, to be training people that are knowledgeable on nuclear and have an interest in policy. We need those kinds of people in the world to be able to speak coherently about some of these issues and go out and tackle those. So, that's fantastic. Are you currently publicizing anything or publishing any new reports, journal articles, anything like that?
Anna Erickson [00:14:21] Well, always, right? I mean, this is part of the job, comes with the job, publishing things. I think our latest publication that we're trying to tackle is really related to this emerging technology and policy. So one of the things that we would like to tackle within this lab is analyzing the technology gap as far as both the verification and detection of nuclear activities and how we can put it in perspective. If we were to look at the next generation treaties and agreements, what technologies would we want to implement, whether it's the new hypersensitive sensors. Is it redundancy within our sensing? What part of the fuel cycle needs to be safeguarded most? Where are the limitations, especially when it comes to the novel reactors, right? There's a lot of hype right now around molten salt reactors, the ones that have fuel dissolved in them, and trying to understand how we can safeguard those reactors better in the near future. Because they possess characteristics of both reactors and, also, reprocessing facilities. So, what is the next generation technology and policy that will be needed for us to make the world safer?
Ryan Howell [00:15:40] Yeah, that'd be great if you could talk a little bit more about that. We've got a lot of companies here in the US that are working on new small modular reactors and the next generation of reactor designs. But from a nonproliferation standpoint, can you talk about... Obviously we're trying to ramp up and see reactors powering everything around the world to get us to net zero, but what does that look like from a nonproliferation standpoint?
Anna Erickson [00:16:05] It's challenging, to say the least. One of the challenges is that everybody is looking at the technology from different perspectives. And as we know, nuclear reactors have very unique characteristics that would affect how we safeguard those facilities, how we safeguard the reactors themselves. There's of course, a unifying factor that is safety related that we can rely on, to some extent. But most of the nonproliferation by design safeguards, by design aspects, have really depended on the system itself.
Anna Erickson [00:16:37] And as I mentioned, some of the more interesting designs involve dissolution of fuel within the coolant, which may lead to increased fuel utilization and other safety aspects related parameters that are beneficial. But how would that impact nonproliferation? How would that impact our ability to safeguard? This is still pretty open as far as the question. But we're working on it with the perspective that, at some point, we'll have to answer this, and it's better if we study it now as opposed to post-design completion.
Anna Erickson [00:17:10] So, Georgia Tech is part of the big effort towards deployment of the next generation reactor. We are participating on a consortium of four universities. Three of them are in Texas and one in Georgia, Georgia Tech, to design research-sized molten salt reactor with an idea to study it in depth in a much smaller footprint and format, provide valuable data to the community, but also understand how we can commercialize that in the near future.
Ryan Howell [00:17:48] You guys will be training the next set of nuclear engineers.
Anna Erickson [00:17:51] Precisely.
Ryan Howell [00:17:51] Besides working with this, they'll have real world, hands on experience with that. That's fantastic.
Anna Erickson [00:17:56] Well, one of the things that affected my, I guess, background on nuclear... Remember how I said that I was obsessed with all reactor types and especially molten metal. But as I've done a number of designs during my undergraduate as well as my master's degree, one of the things that I really have to think hard about is are we going to move past this paper reactor stage? We can continue to design systems, but when are we building something with our hands?
Anna Erickson [00:18:26] So for my PhD, I took that 180 degree turn and I went from the reactor design into experimental detection. I got to build detectors. I got to do plumbing and electrical. I can actually plumb things in my house now, which was a great experience. So I built my own systems there, and that was very satisfying to see something going from an idea, a concept on paper, to completion in real life. This is critical for our students.
Anna Erickson [00:18:56] I argued that in 2016 when we discussed what the next generation reactor deployment might look like, when we had a workshop on advanced reactor technology. And I said, "One of the things that we need to address is not just the technology itself, it's also the workforce." We do not want to discourage our students from going on to nuclear. We don't want to be perceived as a stagnation field, right? We want to be the most innovative field. We want to attract students and turn our passion towards them and see if they can continue.
Ryan Howell [00:19:32] No, that's actually a big problem in the nuclear industry. We've got a lot of the guys that were originally in the nuclear power industry that are all retiring out and there's definitely a gap there. So yeah, excited to hear you guys are training the next generation of reactor operators and designers. That's fantastic.
Anna Erickson [00:19:50] Yes, indeed.
Ryan Howell [00:19:53] Can you paint us a picture for the future? Where do you hope things go?
Anna Erickson [00:19:57] Well, let me start with Georgia Tech, because this is close to home and then maybe I'll talk about the bigger picture. One thing that, as a message to our students, as a message to our faculty that I often try to convey is we cannot be the followers, we have to lead. We have to be the leaders. When it comes to the technology or policy, talking on Capitol Hill, making sure our voices are heard, we have to lead and lead with confidence. And this is critical because if we don't view ourselves as the leaders, it's really difficult to influence the field and others.
Anna Erickson [00:20:39] So, this is what we see with nuclear. I think for many years we buckled down under the pressure of, "Hey, how does this society pursue nuclear?" It's difficult because a lot of times people are afraid of nuclear, people don't understand it.
Ryan Howell [00:20:58] We didn't do ourselves any favors there, yeah.
Anna Erickson [00:20:59] Right. And the idea is that we cannot give into pressure of historical opinions. Let's put it mildly, right?
Ryan Howell [00:21:09] Nice, yes.
Anna Erickson [00:21:11] But we need to lead into a better future. And I think the American Nuclear Society and our society in general, we have found our voice. We know how to communicate with the broader community. Instead of being overly technical, almost condescending, we want to tell them the future of nuclear is bright. It is NIF bright. It is nuclear power bright. And take it beyond, saying that, "There is no medicine without nuclear." You cannot have diagnostics or treatment of cancers without X-rays.
Ryan Howell [00:21:48] Right.
Anna Erickson [00:21:49] There is no such thing as oil exploration without nuclear. Not that we want more oil, but I'm saying that they utilize neutron sources to find it. We can give numerous examples where nuclear influences the society, but we don't emphasize it. And I think what we're doing now with the reactors being the integral part of the next generation solution for the climate, we hit it very close to home for the young people. They want to see a better planet. They're not afraid of the consequences, as we've seen with the previous generations. They want to learn and they're hungry.
Ryan Howell [00:22:32] Yeah. Hungry to fix those challenges head on. That's fantastic. So, what can we do to continue educating the public? I think that's a big thing. Does ANS, American Nuclear Society, do any public outreach or is there some other forum for that?
Anna Erickson [00:22:48] Yes. That's a great question. I think you're sort of answering your own question through this podcast, right?
Ryan Howell [00:22:53] Trying to, yes.
Anna Erickson [00:22:53] Yes. One of the things that I think our community, nuclear engineering, medical physics, health, physics communities should do more is communication. Whether through podcasts, general education, talking to your colleagues, talking to your families, basically being able to highlight the benefits of the nuclear without shying away from the problems. Every industry has a problem. I mean, nuclear's record is stellar compared to some industries, yet we are more afraid of things we cannot see or touch or feel. So one of the things that we've been doing really well through the American Nuclear Society is this communication. The leadership of the American Nuclear Society did a tremendous job of turning away from overly technical seminar type presentations.
Ryan Howell [00:23:54] And very private to the nuclear industry.
Anna Erickson [00:23:55] Very private, behind the paywall. And now, "Hey, let's talk to high schoolers. Let's talk to colleges. Let's make sure that people at four year colleges without nuclear engineering degrees still have an idea of what we do, and maybe we can convince them to go to grad school." In fact, we've done a number of outreaches like that here through the ETI Consortium as well as the NRE program of talking to colleges here in Atlanta, HBCU and MSI colleges. The students at those colleges don't traditionally experience graduate education like our undergrad. In my lab alone, I have six undergrads in a given semester just working with grad students. And what's the rate of those undergrads going to grad school? It's close to 100% because they love it; they love research.
Anna Erickson [00:24:45] So when we talk about four year colleges, we're talking about a lot of potential that we can tap into and bring those students to become grad students, to become the next generation researchers. So, communication is critical at every level, not just general podcast, which by the way, is very effective, I've got to say, but also communicating through high school, four year colleges, and general public.
Ryan Howell [00:25:16] Yeah, that's great. Well, is there anything else that you'd like to share with us that we haven't touched on?
Anna Erickson [00:25:22] Well, I mean, we can talk for another three or four hours easily, because nuclear is a fascinating topic. But I want to express the gratitude to our community in general, our nuclear engineering community, that stepped in and really realized that we can turn things around for nuclear. And once we believe in this, we have our government believing in this now. There are a number of initiatives that are ongoing, and I think it will only increase. So I want to thank everybody who listens to this podcast, but also all of our amazing researchers and scientists who contribute every day in growing this next generation workforce.
Ryan Howell [00:26:06] That's fantastic. Well, thank you, Professor Erickson, for joining us today on Titans of Nuclear. We really appreciate your time.
Anna Erickson [00:26:15] Thank you for having me. Appreciate the work you do.