Ep 33: Chad Painter - Technical Advisor - National Nuclear Security Administration
"Q1: How did you become interested in nuclear energy?
A1: Chad Painter remembers the 1970’s oil crisis that sparked the creation of the U.S. Department of Energy. Painter, looking for some financial assistance, joined the Navy while in college and became a Navy Nuke. His class in the Navy was the last to train on a prototype for the USS Nautilus, which was an old land-based reactor at the Idaho National Lab. In his years in the Navy, Painter decommissioned a submarine at Bremerton shipyard; it was de-fueled, had systems shut down, and the reacting compartment was chopped up and sent to Hanford Site in a low level waste facility. Painter was later assigned to a Trident submarine, which had the most advanced reactor at the time.
Q2: What makes a reactor in a submarine more advanced than another reactor in a submarine?
A2: Chad Painter notes some unique characteristics in terms of fuels used in different reactors and submarines. Nuclear submarines put lots of energy into a small compartment to run propulsion and provide electricity, water, and air.
Q3: How does Navy nuclear designer experience impacted the civilian nuclear industry?
A3: Chad Painter, there are many challenges surrounding large, traditional nuclear energy plants. The nuclear supply chain in the U.S. has lost a lot of skill sets in the past 30 years and the challenges of manning a large nuclear plant take a long time. Sometimes, the design is ongoing after construction has already started, and regulatory delays have also stretched the overall cost of the plant. There were Navy nuclear operators at Three Mile Island during the incident in 1979, which had much worse psychological effects than health effects on the public, similar to Fukushima.
Q4: What’s is like entering into a master’s program in nuclear engineering after serving in the Navy?
A4: Many of Chad Painter’s classmates entered the nuclear engineering graduate program right out of undergraduate school, but Painter had experience in how reactors were operated. In 1990, the nuclear engineering department at the University of California Irvine wanted to teach fusion engineering since the nuclear energy industry had slowed down. Painter decided not to pursue fusion engineering any longer but joined the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, before it was a National Lab.
Q5: The fast reactors are good for testing out new reactor types, but one advantage is a higher burnup of actinides.
A5: Chad Painter explains that all operating reactors in the U.S. today are thermal reactors, meaning the neutrons which cause fission reactions are low energy. Thermal neutrons cause fissions in the reactor which generates heat, boils water, turns steam generator, and pushes energy to the grid. Fast reactor technology was developed by engineers with long-term energy supply goals when there was an oil crisis and the thought was the fossil fuels would be gone. France re-developed their entire power infrastructure centered on nuclear power. Fast reactors also create fuel, such as plutonium, which is a concern for proliferation. The International Atomic Energy Agency was set up to manage the requirements and ensure that nuclear energy could be used safely in the future.
Q6; What did you do on the fast reactor at PNNL?
A6: Between the time Chad Painter interviewed for work at PNNL in July 1992 and showed up for work in October, a new administration and new secretary of energy were put in place and wanted nuclear work to stop. In the next two years, the group went through a significant downsizing and Painter began pursuing different options. Painter took a job with a friend building components to be placed inside reactors, in collaboration with multiple companies and the NRC at PNNL. During this time, Painter also worked on some side projects, including building a sealed source with weapons grade plutonium alongside Department of Homeland Security. The complex was creating very advanced sensors to detect potential nuclear weapons. Another of Painter’s side projects was Project Prometheus, a program developed by NASA to develop nuclear-powered systems for long-distance space travel.
Q7: Does a space reactor, versus one based off the decay of plutonium, maintain criticality?
A7: Chad Painter conducted extensive research and testing for Project Prometheus for NASA. A space reactor required criticality to produce electricity and power instrumentation and therefore had to be a fast reactor. All fast reactors had been shut down in the U.S., but the team needed to irradiate an understand the behavior of structural materials to build the material out of. The group selected the Joyo fast reactor in Japan to conduct their testing. After the materials test, Painter needed to test the fuel in order to understand the products of fission and how it interacts with the cladding. The cost of all the testing became too high for NASA and they soon pulled the plug on the project.
Q8: What led you to the International Atomic Energy Agency?
A8: Chad Painter remained in the Navy Reserves after his six year term of service as an officer in the Navy and was sent to Iraq for 14 months while working at Battelle at PNNL. Painter returned to PNNL after his deployment and got involved with a General Electric project focused on disposing burned plutonium from the weapons program in boiling water reactors. After Fukushima, local media got wind of the plutonium disposal program and it got shut down immediately. About this time, Painter joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the nuclear power side in power technology development. The other side of the IAEA is focused on safeguarding.
Q9: Tell me about moving to Austria to work in the International Atomic Energy Agency.
A9: For the three years that Chad Painter worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Austria, he collaborated with multiple top international experts on different nuclear reactors. One project he spent time on was a Basic Principle Simulator for Education. The IAEA’s simulators are given to member states for educational purposes for free. Approximately 30 countries in the world are looking into nuclear power as they discover that economy is tied to electricity generation.
Q10: Tell me more about the concept of energy poverty.
A10: Chad Painter estimates, based on U.N. surveys, that there are approximately two billion people in the world that don’t have access to electricity. Some countries, like Jordan, depended on supply from Iraq up until the war, and are now considered an energy poor country. Other countries, like the Emirates, invested in solar power technology, but found it not feasible due to the extreme dust storms. The Emirates turned to nuclear energy and may even use it to produce water with desalination plants in the future.
Q11: Part of the U.N.’s mandate is to help spread the peaceful development of nuclear power. Did you also work on small modular reactors?
A11: Chad Painter worked on creating a roadmap for small modular reactor (SMR) technology development while at the IAEA. The purpose of this roadmap is to help member states evaluate and assess nuclear programs as it relates to building an SMR, including regulatory, safeguarding, and engineering requirements. Fear of the technology and fear of its misuse is still prevalent in the society, including terrorist attacks on nuclear plants. The new generation of nuclear plants can be designed with these factors in mind, instead of being retrofitted reactively.
Q12: What brought you back to the U.S. after working in the IAEA?
A12: Chad Painter’s three year assignment at IAEA ended and transitioned into a role working for PNNL in Washington, D.C. Painter advised the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) on their effort to develop, test, and license a new high density alloy fuel to reduce the amount of uranium used in the U.S. Painter will return to PNNL, which is developing a fabrication technology needed to build these unique materials. The incorporation of passive safety features will be a big consideration in Gen 3 reactor design.
Q13: Tell me about the different between Gen 2, Gen 3, and small modular reactors.
A13: Chad Painter sees small modular reactors (SMR’s) as possibly walk-away safe that provides extended response time before the infrastructure is damaged. This reactor technology may be more expensive to develop, but could be saved on construction time and cost. Large light water-cooled reactors may cost upwards of $5 billion. Advanced reactors, such as metal-cooled and gas-cooled, are also up and coming, but the complex construction management needs to be greatly improved.
Q14: Why did all the research reactors around the world start using this high enriched fuel?
A14: Chad Painter sees this enriched fuel being used more because it can be packed into a small volume and create a very high neutron flux reactor core, keeping the reactors running longer and test advanced fuels and materials. There is a goal to develop a high density, low enriched uranium fuel and redesign the core accordingly.