Ep 73: Kemal Pasamehmetoglu - Dir. of Versatile Test Reactor, Idaho National Labs
Q1 - Nuclear as an Energy Solution
Bret Kugelmass: Where did your interest in nuclear begin?
Kemal Pasamehmetoglu: Kemal Pasamehmetoglu’s interest in general about issues related to energy and energy for society started when he was in high school. Pasamehmetoglu grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. The city that he was in was growing too fast and there were a lot of infrastructure issues; electricity was not readily available. People who never had electricity get used to it, but those who had it for a while and had it taken away from them, got frustrated. Rolling blackouts were not common until the late 60’s and early 70’s, but all of a sudden it started happening. Pasamehmetoglu decided that he wanted to be an engineer and that was the problem he wanted to tackle: how to provide affordable, clean, accessible energy to people. Pasamehmetoglu studied mechanical engineering, with a focus on thermodynamics of energy systems, at Boğaziçi University, where he took a couple nuclear engineering courses. After his undergraduate, Pasamehmetoglu came to Florida to complete his Master’s and PhD. His first research project in the early 80’s was on the solar energy sector, convincing himself that, as good as it was, solar wasn’t going to work. His PhD research and dissertation was on nuclear reactors, looking at how to mitigate loss-of-cooling accidents (LOCA) at a time shortly after the Three Mile Island incident. A large-break LOCA is when you get a guillotine break in the pipe and the pressure quickly pushes the coolant out. The pipe could also start leaking, which takes a longer period of time for the reactor to depressurize and lose coolant. Slow leaks are not as catastrophic, but it puts the operators in a position where they don’t know what to do.
Q2 - Projects at Los Alamos
Bret Kugelmass: When you lose your coolant in the reactor vessel, do you lose the moderator and what happens to the reactor?
Kemal Pasamehmetoglu: When the reactor vessel loses pressure in the coolant, the reactor shuts down and decay heat remains. The decay heat can still heat up the remaining fuel in minutes. One thing in analysis is the point at which the liquid left in the system can no longer cool the fuel rods, which is called critical heat flux. Kemal Pasamehmetoglu went to Los Alamos to continue on his research, where they were currently developing the code that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently uses to model accident scenarios. Pasamehmetoglu spent twenty years at Los Alamos. In the late 80’s, Hanford had an advanced waste process that was producing hydrogen, and everybody was worried there would be a hydrogen explosion in the tank. This was declared the highest safety priority for the Department of Energy (DOE) system. Pasamehmetoglu worked on putting a pump inside the 1 million gallon waste tank, stir the waste continuously to avoid accumulation of hydrogen, and its release. The Belgians are working on a project called MYRRHA, a subcritical accelerator driven system that takes actinides and reduces them, creating energy in the process. Excess neutrons come from the spallation process of irradiating heavy metals with protons. Pasamehmetoglu worked as project manager on the U.S. equivalent of that project, called accelerated transportation of waste. It is not an easy or cheap technology, since it consumes a lot of energy itself. Because it is subcritical, you don’t have to worry about your feedback effects of fuel.
Q3 - Fuel Research at Idaho National Labs
Bret Kugelmass: How long were you at Los Alamos?
Kemal Pasamehmetoglu: Kemal Pasamehmetoglu worked at Los Alamos until 2004, when he was working on the extension of the accelerated transportation of waste project, which had become a fuel cycle project. At this time, the Department of Energy (DOE) decided they were going to create the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The head of the DOE at the time, Bill Magwood, asked Pasamehmetoglu to go to INL, which was established by February 2005. Pasamehmetoglu became the division director for nuclear fuels and materials. Researchers work on fuel are trying to better understand and characterize existing fuels, develop similar fuels to be more accident tolerant, develop advanced reactor fuels. Pasamehmetoglu was also the National Technical Director for all the DOE related fuel research. The focus was not necessarily on accident tolerance, but instead high burnout, reduced waste, and overall higher performance light water reactor fuels at a lower cost. Fukushima happened during Pasamehmetoglu’s work on this program, shifting focus onto accident tolerance. Pasamehmetoglu became the Associate Lab Director for Nuclear Science and Technology, where he spent five years during which he gave multiple presentations to the DOE about a program similar to GAIN, which helps innovation in the nuclear space by making facilities and expertise more available.
Q4 - Nuclear Test Reactors
Bret Kugelmass: As Associate Lab Director of Nuclear Science and Technology, what conversations did you have with your team about what could be done to launch the nuclear industry forward?
Kemal Pasamehmetoglu: There are a lot of choices in terms of advanced reactors that can solve or mitigate problems. As many choices as there are, there are as many proponents and opponents of those choices. One of the mistakes made in the past was letting national laboratories and the government decide what is good and bad, instead of letting the industry take the lead with assistance and technical advice. Doing research for the sake of research was not necessarily the right thing for Idaho National Labs (INL) to do, thinking that they had the answers and nobody else did. Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) was established when Pasamehmetoglu was still associate director, but he served as the director of GAIN for the first several months to get it started. Pasamehmetoglu brought Dr. Rita Baranwel to INL where she took over GAIN as director. A year ago, Pasamehmetoglu took a job as the director of the test reactor at INL. We currently don’t have access to large quantities of fast neutrons to do fuels and materials testing for the advanced reactors. Materials behave differently dependent on the neutron energies. Fast reactors operate at a very high flux, which is neutrons per centimeter squared per second. Peak neutron flux in a light water reactor is on the order of 10^13 neutrons per centimeter squared per second, but in fast reactors, the order is 10^15. The only fast reactor left, when all the companies were coming along try to complete designs to get to commercial market, was in Russia. The communited decided to look at what it would take for the U.S. to regain that capability.
Q5 - Government Support for GAIN
Bret Kugelmass: How do you turn a test reactor from a conversation topic in the nuclear community to a project with government support?
Kemal Pasamehmetoglu: The Department of Energy (DOE) has a Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, which started looking at the needs to make a recommendation to DOE. Pasamehmetoglu also asked industries that were involved in test reactors whether a test reactor was needed and would be used. They identified the type of testing they wanted to see. They made presentations to the DOE and there was quite a bit of congressional support. INL and DOE are not allowed to lobby, but if Congress shows an interest, who hears it from industry and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), they call INL and ask for an explanation of the program. The possibility of faster testing in the industry and U.S. losing the leadership role in the industry are points that bring Congress to support the program. The biggest challenge is always budget.
Q6 - Design of the Versatile Test Reactor
Bret Kugelmass: What is the order of operations for designing a reactor?
Kemal Pasamehmetoglu: Reactor design starts from the fuel. First, you decide what fuel you want to use. INL decided to go with metallic fuels for their test reactor. Then, they started assembling that in a computer to determine the geometric layout of the reactor and how big it needs to be to maintain the functional requirements for flux and height in order to complete the experiments. The INL Versatile Test Reactor will not generate electricity, so they don’t need to worry about commercialization; heat just needs to be removed from the system. At this time, they are looking at something on the order of a 250-300 MW reactor. They wanted to keep it as small as possible, for cost and ease of operation, in terms of refueling and executing experiments. Metallic fuel was chosen because it makes it a bit smaller volume, but also because of the U.S. experience with metallic fuels in the 80’s and 90’s. Metallic fuels offers certain advantages compared to ceramic fuels, in terms of feedback effects, primarily temperature. The Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR) utilized metallic fuel and sodium coolant. INL’s primary coolant will be a pool of sodium coolant, but will have the capability to test other coolants. An experimental vehicle could be placed in the same geometric cavities where fuel rods are removed. The EBR’s safety experiment was to shut down the pumps, but not the reactor, so the sodium is no longer circulating. Fuel starts heating up, causing the reactor to shut down because of negative reactivity feedback as a result of the heating up of the fuel and as the fuel expands, the neutrons escape, moderating the reaction.
Q7 - Integrated Energy Future
Bret Kugelmass: Where is the future of the nuclear industry going?
Kemal Pasamehmetoglu: People will come to realize nuclear energy is needed. We will not be well served if we try to solve the entire problem with one technology, because there is competition for limited dollars with other technologies. The problem should be looked at as an integrated energy problem and look at different energy sources in areas where they do the best and not make it a competition. Each technology can be used at their best so the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Smaller, more flexible reactors and advanced reactors can be integrated with other systems and operate with more flexibility.