A chat with Todd Allen, Chair and Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan, and co-lead of the NEST Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) project
Ensuring nuclear skills and education is an increasingly important challenge for NEA member countries, all of which need new generations of scientists and engineers for the continued safe and efficient use of nuclear technologies for a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical purposes. In this context, the NEA Nuclear Education, Skills and Technology (NEST) Framework was launched in 2019 with the collective effort of ten NEA member countries in order to build up skills vital for the future of the nuclear sector through multilateral co-operation.
The NEST Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) project addresses challenges and opportunities with regards to the development and deployment of SMRs. The project works to integrate existing SMR research projects conducted by the NEST Framework Participating Organisations into a broader and more impactful programme. It also aims to provide NEST Fellows with broad awareness on a wide range of real-world issues and challenges relating to the development and deployment of SMRs. Key topic areas that are covered under the project include SMR technology assessment and development; regulatory frameworks; societal issues; spent fuel management; and SMR economics.
The NEST SMRs project is led by John Luxat, Professor of Engineering Physics at McMaster University, and Todd Allen, Chair and Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan. The NEA spoke with Professor Todd Allen on the NEST Framework, its objectives and its achievements during COVID-19 and beyond.
Tell us about the NEST Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) project: What does the project do and what does it try to achieve?
To realise the potential benefits of proposed SMR technologies, multinational research in multidisciplinary fields is necessary to complement ongoing work in nuclear science and engineering. While research in reactor physics, nuclear safety analysis, engineering physics, and energy systems is fundamental, nations must also examine SMR designs from alternative perspectives, considering radioisotope extraction chemistry, waste segregation, and medical isotope purification. At the same time, public policy research is key to successful siting and licensing of units, requiring an understanding of the public attitudes toward SMRs and gauging public confidence in fuel reprocessing. Similarly, research into the economics of SMRs is central to building a strong business case to attract investment capital for deploying these units in Canada and elsewhere.
The NEST Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) project aims to integrate SMR research projects from each participating organisation into a broader and more impactful programme that includes elements of technology assessment and development, regulatory framework, societal issues, spent fuel management, and SMR economics. Each of these areas is termed a “case study”. And NEST forms partnerships at the intersection of these case studies.
How do the NEST fellows fit in this interdisciplinary framework? What kind of skills and competences will the NEST Fellows gain by participating in this project?
The NEST Fellows are working in cross-national teams to examine SMR deployment across different disciplines. They are tasked with presenting their work in creative and impactful ways. The project is innovative in training the younger generation, as it partners students in projects outside their discipline and beyond the scope of their thesis work and in working across countries. Thus the NEST Framework will establish cohorts that will become professional colleagues across the Fellows’ careers.
NEST Fellows also come into the programme with a mentor from their home institution. As the SMR project establishes new projects at the intersections of the aforementioned case studies, students will then have additional mentorship from partner institutions.
Once travel is allowed, we anticipate two benefits: year-after year visits for students to expand their knowledge throughout their degree programme and integrating lessons learned into their own personal degree programmes. We also anticipate integrating past Fellows into future events as instructors and mentors.
Speaking of travel, we understand that the NEST SMRs project contributed to the overarching NEST goals and objectives despite COVID-19. How has the pandemic affected the project? What have you learned from the experience?
COVID-19 prevented travel, essentially stopping all of our plans for in-person exchanges. In response, we created virtual training experiences that could be continued even once in-person travel restarts and set up virtual summer school events aimed at giving the students an interdisciplinary experience.
In August 2020, we ran a one-week SMR Hackathon where student teams studied an SMR deployment scenario and worked in small teams to develop their deployment scenarios. They were provided lectures from international experts, as well as professional mentors to help guide their thinking. In 2021, we are spreading the event over ten weeks and adding a prize element.
That sounds very exciting. Could you tell us a bit more?
Building on the success of 2020’s SMR Hackathon, the NEST SMR Project and the Natural Resources Canada's Smart Grid Program joined again to co-deliver a high-impact event to broaden the global discussion around nuclear energy solutions.
The 2021 SMR Prize Competition, a virtual event being held from 7 June to 19 August 2021, is bringing together an international cohort of students who will engage weekly to design, develop and ultimately pitch an optimised deployment scenario that requires use of an advanced reactor to support an industrial use.
The event involves a series of online lectures with top engineering, science and social scientists interlaced with small team project breakout sessions where students will examine innovative aspects of SMR technology. Each student team will select a case study that will be their primary focus for the summer. What is unique, within this event, is that the competition will bring together the traditional science and engineering technologies with social and political science aspects.
We as organisers are very excited about this event, and hope that both students and lecturers will learn a lot from the outcomes.
We look forward to seeing the competition results. What opportunities and challenges do you foresee in the next year for NEST and its projects?
Assuming travel will recommence in 2022, we intend to initiate the student exchanges and workshops initially planned for 2020. The participating organisations in the United States will change, so a specific challenge will be to integrate those organisations into the team.
NEST should take advantage of the new formats created during COVID-19 and continue to use virtual events as make sense. This would extend the ability to interact beyond that allowed by the NEST travel budgets.
Video interactions, to be successful, need to be shorter than extended site visits. While the initial NEST discussions envisioned Fellows to be designated based on extended site interactions, the NEST Framework should create a category of “Event Fellows.” This would allow a larger number of total programme engagements with young professionals.
In your view, what are the added-values and benefits for a country to participate in such an initiative? And so, what would be your advice to a country who wants to join NEST?
Each country has a specific focus for their research programmes at universities. In many cases, forming cross-country partnerships adds richness to the student’s academic experience that would not otherwise be possible.
My advice for a country that is interested in joining NEST would be to study the current varieties of NEST projects being created and their specific technical focus, compare these to the country-specific programmes for training young professionals, and look for partnerships that can enhance the training beyond what a specific country can do.