April 26, 2023

Ep 394: Roger Blomquist - Principal Nuclear Engineer, Argonne National Laboratory

Principal Nuclear Engineer
Argonne National Laboratory
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Show notes

Erik Walker [00:00:07] Hi, my name is Eric Walker, and welcome to Titans of Nuclear. Today, our guest is Roger Blomquist, and he is a principal here at Argonne National Laboratory. Roger, welcome.

Roger Blomquist [00:00:20] Thank you, Eric.

Erik Walker [00:00:21] So, before we get into the nitty gritty details, you want to go into a little bit of your background? How did you get started in nuclear? What led you down this career path?

Roger Blomquist [00:00:32] So, I'm a nuclear engineer by accident. Maybe that's a poor choice of words, but... So, I was a physics major in undergraduate school. I got my degree in 1969 and went to graduate school in physics. And we had the first Vietnam-era draft lottery in late 1969. And my lottery was number one. And my dad was in World War II, earned a Purple Heart and told me I didn't want to be infantry. And so, I had a choice between letting myself get drafted for two years or using my physics degree in the U.S. Navy. And so, that was my choice. And I became a Nuclear Propulsion Officer on a nuclear submarine. And so, that training is really... It's the best training in the world, other maybe than fighter pilot training. I don't know, but very thorough training.

Erik Walker [00:01:30] That's crediting Admiral Rickover, right? That was his program.

Roger Blomquist [00:01:34] Yes, and I met Admiral Rickover, too.

Erik Walker [00:01:36] That's so cool.

Roger Blomquist [00:01:37] I had to meet Admiral Rickover. It wasn't cool, but I got through it.

Erik Walker [00:01:42] I've heard his interview techniques to be somewhat unorthodox.

Roger Blomquist [00:01:48] Yeah, he was... He used the bully technique and it was pretty effective. And he tried to bully me. I'm a pretty mild mannered guy, but I didn't cave, and I managed to escape the interview without executing myself. But anyway, so I had been a physics major and then I was a nuclear engineer in the Navy, and when I finished my active duty after four years, four and a half years, I went to graduate school at Northwestern in nuclear engineering. They had a small program, but some of our teachers and professors were very senior, top of the field people at Argonne National Laboratory. So, it was a good program. And when I finished my Ph.D. there in computing methods and reactor physics, I came to Argonne in 1979, and I've been here ever since. I just officially retired in January, but I'm still part time. It's kind of a nice transitional arrangement.

Roger Blomquist [00:02:53] And I've worked in the physics part of nuclear engineering my whole career. So, for a young person, they might say, "Wow, this guy really... He was thinking way ahead." But no, it was really just stuff that happened to me and I took advantage of opportunities that came along and actually forced themselves on me.

Erik Walker [00:03:14] Well, that's incredible. So, just a couple of questions a little bit back into your past. Just in case some listeners don't know, currently all the submarines and aircraft carriers in the US Navy's fleet are all nuclear powered. For people who weren't aware, that's the connection there that Roger's talking about. What was life like on a nuclear sub back then? It doesn't sound to be too enjoyable.

Roger Blomquist [00:03:42] So, it's a combination of stress and boredom, but I think that's true in any kind of warfare situation. We were not in a shooting war at the time; this was the height of the Cold War. My ship was about to run out of uranium-235, and so we did a deployment. But it was a fairly short one; it was only three and a half months. The standard deployment then was six months, or if you went to the West Pacific, it was nine months. We went across the Atlantic, so ours was only, because of the situation, only three and a half months.

Roger Blomquist [00:04:21] My stateroom... I was one of the most junior officers on the ship, but I had a stateroom shared with two other guys. The floor space was about two feet by two feet, and that was taken up by a fold-down desk. And being the shortest guy in the stateroom, I was in the top bunk. So, I had to kind of climb up and slide into my bunk like a monkey. In the bunk, you can't sit up. There isn't enough headroom, but there's a nice fluorescent reading light right above your forehead, which is very handy except if you suddenly sit up, you would crash into the lamp. So, they had a real nice sturdy grill over it, which I did plant my forehead on that a couple of times.

Erik Walker [00:05:11] Wow. Yeah, three and a half months deployment. You can't... Stir crazy, I feel like, is an understatement.

Roger Blomquist [00:05:19] We were too busy to get stir crazy. And most people imagine they're claustrophobic. Really, most people are not. It's pretty unusual. And if you're busy, all of this other stuff just sort of disappears into the wallpaper, kind of.

Erik Walker [00:05:37] Right. Okay, well then, linking that to Argonne is... I'm sure you're very well familiar with the Argonne Reactor Tree, that picture?

Roger Blomquist [00:05:52] Yes.

Erik Walker [00:05:52] For viewers and listeners, if you just go and Google the Argonne Reactor Tree, you'll see this pretty image that comes up. And Argonne has been pretty integral to nuclear engineering, basically, since the very, very beginning, right? The trunk of the tree on this image is CP-1, the Chicago Pile-1, the world's first nuclear reactor. And then, all the branches are the different types of reactors that have come off that. And one of them is the Nautilus. And so, that was actually the first nuclear powered submarine, if I'm not mistaken. And that was designed by Argonne. So, Argonne has been integral to the nuclear industry, basically, all the way back to the beginning.

Erik Walker [00:06:37] So, looking at this image and all these apples on the tree, all these different reactor designs and types, I'm assuming you've been involved with analyzing some of them, probably? Working on any of them?

Roger Blomquist [00:06:53] Well, even though I've been here a long time, at the time those reactors were operating, I was one of the really young guys or not here yet. And so, Argonne was established in 1946 to develop peaceful uses of atomic energy. So, we've never done, for example, nuclear weapons work. But Argonne did build several dozen reactors, a bunch of them here in Illinois and a bunch of them at Argonne West in Idaho, which in the early in mid-2000s became part of Idaho National Laboratory.

Roger Blomquist [00:07:30] The first reactor that generated electricity was Experimental Breeder Reactor-1, and that produced electricity in 1951. Now, that was only nine years after Chicago Pile-1. If you think about innovation pace, that was a really good clip for nuclear innovation. And for a long time... Well, we've gone through a long period when innovation was not very active, and we're back into that zone again, fortunately. But I've seen a few of those reactors. I never operated any of the Argonne reactors. Even though I had operational experience, I came here as a reactor physicist, so.

Erik Walker [00:08:17] Okay, I see. When Argonne split, Argonne West became Idaho National Labs. So, a lot of those reactors that were built and designed by Argonne are now under the purview of Idaho National Lab.

Roger Blomquist [00:08:41] Yeah. Actually, most of them were already... They'd met their missions by then and were shut down. There were several that were still operating and one of them has been resurrected from standby, TREAT, which is a fabulous fuel test reactor. You can put fuel in it that you want to test and drive it to destruction and see how it fails, understand all the physics and chemistry of fuel failure and so forth. And there's a couple of others.

Roger Blomquist [00:09:12] One other that was a physics experiment reactor that's still in standby. But the way our reactor program has worked over the decades is you build a reactor to test a certain concept or to generate a certain set of experimental data, and then when you finish that, then the question is, "Well, can I use this reactor for something else we hadn't thought of originally? Or, is it just a big drain on our resources and we need to kind of shut it down and do something better?" So, that's kind of the way those considerations were made. But as I said, a lot of our reactors, the more edgy ones, were built in Idaho.

Erik Walker [00:09:58] Right, okay. So, I had a little experience in the national lab space. For grad school, I was a contractor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And then after my postdoc, was hired on as a staff scientist for a few years. It's a very similar situation at Oak Ridge where it started in wartime with the graphite reactor, but then over the years there have been numerous reactors that have been built and operated on sites that have seen the end of their useful life. And currently there's only, I believe, one still operating on Oak Ridge's Reservation, that's the High Flux Isotope Reactor. Are there any of the Argonne reactors still operating or active?

Roger Blomquist [00:10:48] No, none in Illinois.

Erik Walker [00:10:50] Okay.

Roger Blomquist [00:10:51] In fact, we had a Chicago Pile-5, CP-5, which was a heavy-water reactor used for training reactor operators and for the emerging civil nuclear electricity business in the US, but also a lot of neutron physics experiments. That one has been greenfield decommissioned. That was the first greenfield decommissioning of a reactor in the United States. We are actually using some of the other facilities that contained some of our Zero Power Reactors. Zero is not perfectly correct, it's just so low-power you don't need a cooling system which makes your whole experiment way cheaper.

Erik Walker [00:11:38] Right.

Roger Blomquist [00:11:39] Anyway, so we're still using those cells for other kinds of experiments that may involve a lot of energy, like high-power lasers or potentially vigorous chemical reactions.

Erik Walker [00:11:55] So, you've touched on a point I'd like to go into a little further, the greenfield decommissioning. That's something that we want to strive for, but you don't hear that too much. Can you just explain for those who don't know what that means and how that's accomplished?

Roger Blomquist [00:12:12] Greenfield's sort of a descriptor that you return the site to what it was before they first broke ground to build the facility. That's kind of the holy grail of decommissioning. I personally have reservations as to whether that is always a good idea because there is such a thing as brownfield industrial facilities where you reuse industrial property that has satisfied its first mission for some other purpose. And it's way cheaper to do that than to start with a greenfield somewhere else. And so, that is one of the considerations that needs to be made. Greenfield is something that people want to insist on, but it's expensive. And there's a good question as to whether or not that is, overall, a good approach. In some cases I'm sure it is, but in others there may be better uses for that property or facility.

Erik Walker [00:13:16] Right. And it's a testament to these sites that have nuclear facilities on them that they can be returned back to the state that they were before the facility. So, the notion that once a nuclear facility is in a location it's contaminated for all time and there's nothing we can do and it completely ruins the environment is just a fallacy.

Roger Blomquist [00:13:38] Yes. Exactly.

Erik Walker [00:13:41] That's, I think, an important point to touch on. So then, you're at Argonne and now part time at Argonne. But I see that you've sort of moved into the public speaking sort of realm. Would you like to go a little more in detail to that?

Roger Blomquist [00:13:58] Yeah. So, I worked quietly as an engineer for decades and listened to all the public discourse on nuclear energy. I understood for a fact that a lot of it was distortions, exaggerations or worse. And it was pretty annoying. But engineers kind of like to... We know what we do is good work and it stands by itself. And we don't want to argue with people who think what we're doing is dumb or evil or bad or somehow negative, generally, because they don't know what they're talking about, really. So, we have never considered that a constructive way to spend our time.

Roger Blomquist [00:14:50] But eventually, it wore me down; I got tired of it. So, I started giving a few talks to civic groups and so forth. And then Fukushima happened, and now there's a public hysteria. And the lab gave me some media training. So, I was then authorized to talk to reporters and stuff. And so, I found that was enjoyable. It wasn't always successful, in my view, in terms of conveying to the public what I wanted to say. But it was still worthwhile and an interesting mind game if your reporter is acting like an opponent.

Roger Blomquist [00:15:32] So, I've been doing a fair amount of that. I don't talk to reporters every month, but I probably talk to one or two every year. And I have talked to more civic groups and I give a lot of tours. We have a fabulous Nuclear Energy Exhibition Hall here, and I give tours to groups that come in like college science and engineering students or even art students and VIPs. So, I've done a lot of talking about all this stuff, and I've also thought a lot about analogies that are understandable to people who are not engineers that will help them really comprehend the issues in a broad sense.

Erik Walker [00:16:22] Have you found it difficult conveying some of the finer aspects to a non-technical audience to get them to understand. Using analogies is a good way to do that, but have you found it difficult to communicate or are people generally pretty receptive to your talks?

Roger Blomquist [00:16:45] Well, generally the people I'm talking to are receptive. Certainly the ones who come to the lab to see the exhibit, they are. Outside the civic groups, it's a variety of different attitudes or pre-conceived notions that people come with. It is hard to convey details. So, I think when I'm talking to public groups, I try to keep things at a very high level and I try to use analogies, and also try to engage them to get them to ask the questions, because what I really want to do is answer their questions. I don't want death by PowerPoint. I can do that, but after a while...

Roger Blomquist [00:17:33] And I tell people, "I'm asking you to be my referee on jargon alert. So, if I say something that's jargon, I want you to raise a yellow card." And I'm still looking for a yellow card I can hand out. But anyway, that sort of humanizes things, too. And I give a little bit about my background, and I think that's humanizing. And I try to use humor and everyday analogies. Like, I compare the chain reaction, the neutron chain reaction to the money chain reaction that our economy is, for example. It is challenging and it takes some practice. And you think of these analogies and ways of presenting information, you know, with repetition.

Erik Walker [00:18:30] Right. So, either dealing with reporters or dealing with, say, a listener who isn't as supportive of nuclear energy as we are, have you ever had misinformation or been misquoted? And how did you combat that? How did you fight back against maybe a mischaracterization of something you might have said?

Roger Blomquist [00:18:56] By a journalist who's anti-nuclear, I've never been misquoted. But I have ended up on the cutting room floor because I didn't say what they wanted me to say. Because in a lot of cases, a journalist comes with a story idea and he's gathering evidence to support the story idea. This is the liberal arts technique. And I'm not disrespecting liberal arts, but the whole idea of writing a paper is state your position and support it if it's expository writing. That's a little bit different from an engineering and science approach. You have your hypothesis; prove it or disprove it. So, there are two options there.

Roger Blomquist [00:19:37] And there was one case where I was supposed to be on Mysteries at the Museum. I spent an hour and a half or two with the producer who was interviewing me about how dangerous the Chicago Pile-1 experiment was. Which it wasn't. I mean, it had its risks, but it wasn't dangerous. And I refused to say it was dangerous. And so, she got someone else to do the entire episode. And I'm proud of that.

Erik Walker [00:20:11] Right. Yeah, you didn't want to be used to propagate a story that just isn't true.

Roger Blomquist [00:20:18] Exactly.

Erik Walker [00:20:21] So, for your public speaking, obviously, I also agree it's extremely important. Nuclear is somewhat of a siloed industry where if you're in you understand and there's somewhat of a "everybody knows" type of mentality. So, being able to communicate with those not in the nuclear industry, but also non-technical, is extremely important. I was just wondering how would others in the industry start to get involved in communication and just educating the public in general? Do you have any recommendations for how to get involved and how to start, hopefully, disproving some of the myths that are out there?

Roger Blomquist [00:21:11] Actually, there are a lot of pro-nuclear groups that have a variety of, let's say, technical competencies amongst their members. Competencies, not competences. I think one of them is Atomic Illinois or something like that. They're kind of all over the place now. They don't have any budgets to speak of compared to the anti-nuclear organizations which are funded to the tune of... Let's see, I've got to count the digits. Nine digits or more, annually. But these groups are pretty effective given the resources that go into them. The industry doesn't generally support them, so they are fairly independent. I guess I could make a list if there's a list you can post on the podcast thing, I could come up with one.

Erik Walker [00:22:16] Okay. Yeah, I'm aware of a few out there, and I know there's...

Roger Blomquist [00:22:21] Yeah, you probably are. Yeah.

Erik Walker [00:22:23] There are a lot of grassroots organizations that are out there that people can Google them and try and get involved and see if there's rallies or events. Recently here, just outside of Oak Ridge, the NRC had a public meeting about a potential use over near the Oak Ridge Reservation and it was pretty well-attended by pro-nuclear folks. You'd expect there were a couple anti-nuclear folks there, but the word got out and there was enough pro-nuclear support there that the overwhelming majority of those they were in favor of pro-nuclear.

Roger Blomquist [00:23:04] I also do a lot on social media, specifically Facebook, which proves that I'm a Boomer. Anyway, I try to present technical information. And I have a a pocket protector rating, a nerd rating on a scale of zero to five pocket protectors. If it's a really very technical article, I'll say, "Well, this is five pocket protectors, but you can read the first two paragraphs and the conclusion and mostly understand it." You know, it kind of humanizes things too, because even people like you and me with advanced degrees have trouble understanding stuff that's outside of our lane. It's a lot of hard work to do so. And it's sort of a joke, too, because I'm a nerd. So, there we go. And proud of it.

Erik Walker [00:24:00] Yeah, exactly. Back to that, I wanted to get more into the nitty gritty detail. So, I'm a reactor physicist as well, so I'm very intrigued by your work. I see that you've done reactor physics work, Monte Carlo. I was hoping you could add a couple of pocket protectors to the talk at this point and maybe get a little more technically detailed as to the type of work that you've done in the past at Argonne and are still doing currently.

Roger Blomquist [00:24:29] Okay, so scaling up the pocket protectors, I became the developer of Argonne's Monte Carlo code, which I didn't write, but I was to maintain and upgrade it and keep up to date with neutron cross section revisions. And this code was used for analyzing our critical facilities, which had a very nice, simple geometry. And so, the code would run pretty fast. So, I ended up working with one of the leading lights in resonance theory, neutron resonance theory, Richard Wong, whose office is next door to mine. And he was a real math genius. I'm pretty good at math, but I'm orders of magnitude less than him. So, I had the privilege of working with some great people. Another one is Eli Gelbard, who wrote the book on Monte Carlo neutronics while he was at Bettis. And so, he was sort of my technical big brother here at Argonne because I had no training in Monte Carlo. I was basically handed this job, saying, "Here, make it work.".

Roger Blomquist [00:25:37] But that went on for quite a while. And then, I got involved with criticality safety analysis because one of my colleagues was analyzing a heterogeneous core fast reactor, and I had a situation where the result was clearly wrong. And so, the question was, "Why is this wrong?" And it turns out it's the inability for neutrons to get from one part of this heterogeneous reactor to the other, and it made the whole thing very tilty. In total, in five pocket protector nerd terms, the eigenvalue separation between the principal and the first eigenvalue was very small.

Erik Walker [00:26:28] Okay.

Roger Blomquist [00:26:28] So, I ended up chairing a group at the Nuclear Energy Agency, an expert group on problematic calculations, Monte Carlo calculations in nuclear criticality safety. It turns out there are a number of cases where this is an issue. I worked with a group that came up with a set of test problems that are very, very challenging for Monte Carlo codes. Actually, they're pretty challenging for deterministic codes, too. And so, these have been used now for decades to help people evaluate things like acceleration techniques and ways to avoid putting all the source particles in the lower reactivity region of a criticality safety analysis problem.

Erik Walker [00:27:24] Right. Okay, and just to test myself, is that ratio of the zero in the first eigenvalue, that's the dominance ratio, correct?

Roger Blomquist [00:27:34] Yes, it is. In fact, I'd forgotten that term. Thank you for reminding me. It's the dominance ratio. And if the dominance ratio is close to one, then you have to be very, very careful about converging your solution.

Erik Walker [00:27:49] Correct. Yeah, that's a five pocket protector, for sure.

Roger Blomquist [00:27:54] Yeah.

Erik Walker [00:27:55] You touched on a lot of the talent that is just literally next door to your office. I've found that one of the strengths of the National Labs is it's really just the best of the best, all in one place, but not necessarily all the best in the same area. Like you were saying, you have a great physicist, great mathematicians, and they're all different backgrounds, different trainings, but they're all working together towards these same problems. I was hoping you could speak a little bit to the benefits of these big multidisciplinary teams that are ingrained in the National Labs.

Roger Blomquist [00:28:38] Yeah, that's exactly the case. Even in your own lane, if you want to do something you haven't done before, there might be somebody down the hall who has done something like it. And instead of doing a big literature research, you can just go say, "Hey Jack, have you ever tried this?" And that's what I did with Eli quite a bit. He'd say, "Well, that was done in 1958 and it didn't work because of "X," you know? It's actually a force multiplier. And then there are the people, as you mentioned, in the other areas that I work with, cross-section experts and thermal hydraulics people too. I worked a little bit in thermal hydraulics, also. And lately, I've sort of morphed into research reactor design. And so, those are areas that I didn't know much about. And so, there were people here who could help me get past roadblocks or give me quick answers to important questions that would smooth my path.

Roger Blomquist [00:29:42] And I'm also just inherently interested in reactor safety. And so, I've always taken the trouble to go to the many colloquium seminars that we have on subjects like reactor safety. Now, it's advanced reactors and SMRs. And so, we have people from these companies and other labs come and give talks. So, it's a benefit not just to the work, but to me, that I can learn this other stuff. And that's peripheral to what I'm doing in my lane, but it's important for me to understand in the overall picture.

Roger Blomquist [00:30:24] And that's one of the big lessons that the Navy teaches people. You need to understand what's going to happen to the core if you adjust the speed of the condensate pump two fluid systems away. And so, viewing a reactor as an organic whole is a very worthwhile understanding.

Erik Walker [00:30:47] Right. Also, that interdisciplinary benefit that the National Labs have is also beneficial for private companies in other industries, not only in nuclear. Having different technical experiences and different trainings, education viewpoints is very beneficial to any organization doing any type of technical work to get those different perspectives.

Roger Blomquist [00:31:17] Yeah, they're useful even in policy arguments, too. You know, people claim that batteries are going to allow us to use wind and solar. And I'm still asking people the question, "Well, okay, now we have inverters. You tell me we have inverters that follow the frequency, but we don't need to follow the frequency. We need to set the frequency. Where is the energy coming in a wind turbine to set the frequency when the load goes up or some of the wind turbines drop offline?" And so, it equips having exposure to these other areas.

Roger Blomquist [00:31:54] In this case, the Navy was particularly valuable because on the ship I was also running the electric company when I was on watch. I ran the electric company; I ran the propulsion plant. And so, I understand something about microgrids because we had a microgrid. And so, that puts me in a good position to ask questions of people who are making press release type claims, which seems to be the common mode today in communicating policy discussions.

Erik Walker [00:32:31] Right. So, back to a comment that you made earlier. Some of the work that you've gone into is criticality safety. For those who might not know what it is, would you just explain what it is and kind of give some examples of other criticality safety stories that you personally experienced? Or, some of the famous ones that are out there just to give people an idea.

Roger Blomquist [00:32:56] Yeah, criticality safety is a very tricky field and a very important one. Generally, a reactor is built so that when it's all put together, all the materials are in there. Then you can make it critical. It's easy to make it subcritical. So, almost anything that happens to the reactor will make it subcritical. Like if the temperature goes up, then the neutron chain reaction will naturally be reduced a little bit. And so, that's what stability is. And so, that's how we design reactors.

Roger Blomquist [00:33:33] But if you're processing nuclear materials in a chemical plant or shipping chunks of fissionable material around, now the conditions are not so regular. Criticality safety is the art and science of avoiding a situation where you have too much fissionable material in one place at one time. And there are lots of ways of doing that and there needs to be analysis to support that. My role was to work on these analytical techniques.

Roger Blomquist [00:34:12] But while I was in that area, there was an accident in Japan that had fatalities. And this was a procedural accident. There was a system that was designed for handling chemical solutions of uranium that was enriched up to 5%. And because there was insufficient management oversight and following of safety procedures, they were using it higher than 5%. And they actually had a criticality excursion when there were three operators right next to the tank where this occurred and there was no shielding. I think two of them got killed and there was a radiation release, which was very scary for people. As I recall, it was not harmful to human health in the neighborhood or anything, but this was a really big deal.

Roger Blomquist [00:35:12] And it turns out that there have been many, many criticality accidents, and almost none of them involve reactors. They are pretty much all in processing plants. There's one funny one where... Everyone remembers from their high school chemistry class having an electric stirrer with a little magnet in the bottom of the beaker. It sits on something that spins the magnetic fields, which turns that little agitator, and that stirs up the solution. And somebody filled a system with fissionable material or had a layer of fissionable material. And it was subcritical, but when they started the stirrer, it went critical; it went supercritical. So, who would think that throwing a switch would make something supercritical?

Roger Blomquist [00:36:02] So again, just like in a nuclear reactor, you have to view this whole system in an organic way and think about all the failure modes and so forth. And size your containers in such a way that there's no way it could ever go critical, for example. That's one common technique; have the container so small that no way can criticality be achieved.

Erik Walker [00:36:29] Right. Another topic I wanted to speak about was something that I think is a little unique to the National Labs. How you get started on projects and how projects get to the labs. Proposals and funding. It's all something that, to someone who works for a private company, might sound kind of foreign. So, it's something you could just go into at a high level. Just, how projects in the National Labs work together.

Roger Blomquist [00:37:02] I think over the history of the National Labs, and certainly over Argonne's history, this has evolved quite a bit. At the beginning, Argonne was told, "Go explore reactors for civil use." And so, Argonne built all kinds of different types of experimental and test reactors and some prototypes and so forth. By the time I came, then projects were being managed at the Department of Energy. When I first came to the lab, essentially, there was a breeder reactor program that the lab managed. So, if we needed somebody to work on this one particular kind of computer code, the managers would just find somebody and say, "Okay, this is your project now.".

Roger Blomquist [00:37:52] Now, it's more like there are requests for proposals from the Department of Energy or NRC or whomever. And so, we sort of compete. I mean, the National Labs each kind of have their own lanes that they're particularly strong in. So, it's not capitalism raw in tooth in terms of competition. And there's a lot of collaboration among the labs, too, because we have different lanes. But now, the DOE program managers, we give them deliverables and so forth and so on, progress reports and all that stuff. Formerly, I think much more of that was inside each of the labs. Now, it's much more centralized in the funding institutions.

Roger Blomquist [00:38:43] But that means that some of these projects reflect external needs that the labs haven't necessarily thought of. And one good example of that is the Iran nuclear deal, which I had the privilege to work on. That was my first reactor design project. And that's a response to a geopolitical issue where Iran was building a research reactor. The question was, "Is this a plutonium production, nuclear weapons proliferation threat?" And we established, in very short order, "Yes, it was." And so, that morphed into providing the State Department, the interagency team, actually, with technical information, real truth about their reactor design and what it could do.

Roger Blomquist [00:39:43] And so, we supported the negotiations and then we worked on the project with evaluating the Iranians' response to the requirement that they redesign their reactor. And so, that's an external motivation for this work in particular. But out of that has come a program that we're just kind of getting started on involving sort of an organic look at the nuclear proliferation characteristics of any nuclear system that's proposed. And it's with the idea of kind of designing in from the very beginning, the ground up, design features, configurations, whatever other aspects of design that would make it hard for a nuclear system to be misused.

Erik Walker [00:40:42] Gotcha. So, that just goes to show the types of external sources that can direct work at the National Labs. It's not only industry or DOE space, there's all sorts of external influences that can help shape and direct the National Labs' efforts.

Roger Blomquist [00:41:07] Yeah, we're also paid by the Department of Energy to work with a lot of these innovative reactor companies, especially in advanced reactor technology because we have the experiments that provide the information and also the heavily tested computer programs that analyze experiments that they can use to do their design analysis and safety analyses. So, we do quite a bit of that, too. That's externally driven.

Erik Walker [00:41:38] Right. So, a curious question I have is the nuclear space is pretty, pretty large. We've touched on multiple different aspects and areas of expertise within it. You've had a long career. Are there any parts of the nuclear field that you get to work very much in, that you had a strong interest in? Or is there anything, maybe future work that you, hopefully, can get more involved in?

Roger Blomquist [00:42:17] Well, probably not for me, but for many people interested in the field. I think material science is always going to be a good field in nuclear because nuclear fuel... A reactor's a pile of hot rocks that's configured to be able to keep it cool and extract the heat to use to make money, or to produce the neutrons that you can use in experiments in the case of research reactors. And we're trying to improve the performance of those in various ways, and that involves a lot of material science. Particularly fuel behaviors, but also there's corrosion chemistry and a lot of other areas that are very important that aren't really nuclear engineering, but they're a part of nuclear engineering. That's the great thing about nuclear engineering because there are so many disciplines that have to interact. And that's true in aerospace as well, but I think it's particularly true in nuclear engineering because we have radiation effects on materials, which is almost unique.

Erik Walker [00:43:23] Yeah, that's another layer of complexity that nuclear has to worry about.

Roger Blomquist [00:43:27] Yes.

Erik Walker [00:43:27] To your point on material science and technology, fusion reactors are a very similar thing. There's a lot of research for the next generation of fusion reactors, getting materials that can withstand those types of environments because we haven't had as much experience in the fusion space as in the fission space. So, material sciences is critically important there as well.

Roger Blomquist [00:43:53] And maybe another order of magnitude more challenging than in an fission reactor.

Erik Walker [00:44:01] Right. Yeah, I agree. I wanted to finish off with just some high-level questions. Roll back the pocketbooks a little bit. What is your view of not just Argonne, but all National Labs? How would you characterize their importance not only to the United States, but just to nuclear energy? Because National Labs aren't only nuclear labs, they're Department of Energy labs. There's all types of research that's going on there. How vitally important do you feel the National Labs are to the nuclear energy space?

Roger Blomquist [00:44:41] I think they're crucial. And one reason is historical, because this is where most of the R&D has been done over the decades. But that leaves open the question of the future. But then a lot of that experimental legacy is really what we're building into the future, because we've been sort of stuck in the light-water reactor mode now for 60 years, really in terms of commercial applications. And that seems to be on the cusp of a major change right now.

Roger Blomquist [00:45:16] And so, I think we can provide that experimental data, the modeling, the models and so forth that are derived from or tested against those data for all kinds of different reactors and applications because reactor applications are changing now, too. A lot of the advanced reactors are targeting industrial process heat as a means of of decarbonizing industry where they're burning gas for heat now, which of course is a carbon pollutant, CO2 pollutant, and also nitrous oxides. So, there are more missions that are being envisioned for power reactors now than there were 20 years ago, at least in the public policy sphere.

Roger Blomquist [00:46:09] Nuclear engineers have been thinking about this stuff for a long time as potential applications. But now the interest in decarbonization, I think, is opening a lot of minds. We do experiments here in support of these companies, too. So, our experimental facilities, which are too big, too complicated, and for a university, possibly too risky, to run, National Labs do that. A university has an endowment, especially a major research university. And if they are doing experiments that have some sort of associated financial risk, then that's a consideration they have to weigh carefully. And that's one role the National Labs play. We have huge facilities here like the Advanced Photon Source that we use for evaluating and studying nuclear fuel and structural materials with radiation damage, for example. That's a billion dollar machine. So, show me a university that's going to build and operate a billion dollar machine. There are a few, but not many. So, that's one of the roles that the National Labs can play.

Erik Walker [00:47:32] Yeah, and you touched on it perfectly. That was the point that I was trying to drive home. There's a critical spot, a critical void that National Labs have to fill that, really, private industry and universities either can't or don't want to take the risk to do those types of research.

Roger Blomquist [00:47:51] Yeah, I mean, there's commercial strategy that a company has on how they're going to get their product to market and so forth. But then, there's sort of a scientific strategy, too, that's, "What is it we need to know more about?" And so, ATLAS is another one of those at Argonne. It's a heavy ion accelerator; it can accelerate uranium ions and hurl them into targets. It's a nuclear physics facility, but it is also used for evaluating the behavior of materials in reactor fuel because, guess what? Fission products are heavy ions. And so, we can, for example, accelerate xenon ions into fuels and see how the fuels behave at various temperatures and study their behavior in a non-radiological way. So, that makes the R&D, the science part of it, way cheaper. Or faster. Much faster turnaround time.

Erik Walker [00:49:01] Cheaper, faster, which are both... In the nuclear industry, those are both good things.

Roger Blomquist [00:49:06] Yeah.

Erik Walker [00:49:08] So, we touched on it briefly. To circle back a little bit, you mentioned earlier, Fukushima. I was, I think, finishing my junior year of undergrad when Fukushima happened. The nuclear industry at that time was pretty rocky. There was talk of a nuclear renaissance, then Fukushima happened and things got pretty dicey. I was just wondering what your perspective is on the nuclear industry as it stands today as opposed to back then? The trajectory that we're going in and sort of the current state of the industry as a whole and where you see it going.

Roger Blomquist [00:49:56] There isn't an industry as a whole. I think there are several industries. Conceptually, I think it's worth distinguishing. So, we have the current commercial reactors. They're perfectly good; they're safe. They've never hurt anybody, anywhere, our light-water reactors. And they're efficient; they're economical as long as the electricity markets aren't buggered, which unfortunately, I believe they are. And so, they are doing some innovation with fuels, working on economics, improving burnups, perhaps. There are efforts underway to do things like that. And those are all good; they're incremental.

Roger Blomquist [00:50:45] Then there's the other part. And they are owned by companies with stockholders, typically. So, they are publicly traded companies. They have a quarterly earnings issue they need to consider, because that's the way our financial markets work in the United States. They are also geographically fragmented. So, we have Exelon, which owns a bunch of reactors in Illinois and a bunch of reactors over on the East Coast. Well, now it's Constellation, I guess. In the Southeast, we've still got a bunch of regulated utilities where those regulated utilities are responsible for strategic resource planning. So, there are a couple of different wrinkles on how we're currently implementing nuclear energy.

Roger Blomquist [00:51:36] But the other part is, now we have venture capitalists funds or money supporting these advanced reactors and small reactors. And the small modular reactors, their role is, A, in the export market, which will come chronologically first, if you ask me, and B, a reduction in the amount of money regulated or a current US utility would have to lay on the table to commit to building a reactor. And right now with the big reactors, that's kind of at a "bet the company" scale. And the small modular reactors will reduce the size of that bet. I think that's an artificial incentive for us to pursue small modular reactors. There are other incentives, but that one is artificial. But that's the world we're in right now.

Roger Blomquist [00:52:34] And we, of course, have deindustrialized. In this country, we've generally gotten away from mining anything. And so, we're going to have to... Not just nuclear stuff, but battery materials, uranium, all kinds of materials. I think we need to seriously reconsider why or what the advantage is for us to outsource that mining to countries with lower environmental standards. And now, strategic materials are a big public policy concern, and they should be. Now, it's understood that it's a national security issue in a way that it wasn't understood five years ago.

Erik Walker [00:53:22] Absolutely. Well, Roger, we're, I think, maybe a little over. I apologize for taking so much of your time. One last comment is if there is anything that you would like to share with our listeners just about nuclear as a whole, anything that we didn't touch on... If there was a specific point you wanted to drive home that we didn't get to spend too much time on... One final thought from you.

Roger Blomquist [00:53:47] So yeah, it's a hope. And the hope is that all of the impediments to the implementation of nuclear technology, especially new nuclear technology that have been put in place like state bans on new nuclear reactors, changes and regulations that were developed over time in support of regulating light-water reactors... There's a whole host of these political, regulatory, economic, marketing aspects to nuclear energy and we are going to need to unwind many of those. And I think it's going to take a long time. But people in the nuclear business, in all aspects of it, and concerned citizens need to get involved in untangling that, basically, big spaghetti bowl of complications that is slowing down innovation and implementation and decarbonization.

Erik Walker [00:54:53] I couldn't agree more; that was perfectly said. So, Roger, I want to thank you again for joining us today as our guest on Titans of Nuclear. And if anybody ever is up near Argonne, we'll reach out to you for a tour.

Roger Blomquist [00:55:10] Absolutely. Thank you.

Erik Walker [00:55:13] Roger, thank you very much.

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