Texas A&M nuclear engineering students take part in DOE's Foreign Field Experience

January 17, 2008
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION, Texas - In its efforts to share the best safety and security practices from Western nuclear facilities with Russian nuclear experts, the Department of Energy (DOE) regularly supports the Foreign Field Experience (FFE) which involves nuclear engineering students from two Russian universities-the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI) and the Obninsk Institute for Nuclear Power Engineering (INPE). This year, for the first time, the FFE included American students. Last October, five Texas A&M University nuclear engineering students, sponsored by the Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute (NSSPI) at A&M, met in Switzerland with six Russian students from INPE and MEPhI. Over a six-day period, they toured some of the top nuclear facilities in the world. Funding from the DOE's National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (NA-20) supported all of the students. "This was the first time American students were part of the FFE," said David Sweeney, one of the Aggies who made the trip. "It provided the additional goal of creating academic ties and professional ties for future nuclear scientists of both Russia and the United States." While in Switzerland the 11 students, who were joined by one American professor and two Russian professors, toured the Spiez Laboratory, the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), Zwilag Interim Waste Storage Facility and the Liebstadt Boiling Water Reactor. "All the facilities we toured gave us great behind-the-scenes access, probably more than you might expect from an American facility," said Sweeney. "I have visited several national labs in the U.S., and it would have been difficult for our group, with the foreign nationals, to do the types of things that we did in the United States." The Spiez Laboratory is the Swiss center of expertise for nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) defense. It supports both the Swiss military as well as the civil defense mission for the country. The Lab deals with protecting Switzerland against NBC weapons and with technical aspects of arms control and disarmament of NBC weapons. The Spiez Lab has performed several international missions on behalf of the United Nations, including the remediation and disposal of chemical agents in Albania. The group saw the radiation detection laboratories, including a mobile unit that can be deployed around the country in response to a radiological event. The tour also included a visit to the chemical agents laboratory and a view of the site for a new bio-safety level-4 facility for biological agents. PSI consists of six facilities dealing with nuclear energy and safety research, and it is the Swiss equivalent of a U.S. national laboratory. While there the students toured several facilities, including the PROTEUS research reactor - a unique zero power reactor that can make measurements on irradiated commercial nuclear fuel - and the Swiss Light Source (SLS), which is one of the largest synchrotrons in the world. They also toured PSI's hot cell facility that is used to work with radioactive materials. In the main hot cell area was a series of six hot cells, large sealed rooms with thick lead walls and robotic arms controlled from outside to work inside the hot cells. Other rooms used for less highly radioactive material had moveable lead walls so the rooms could be expanded. The PSI hot lab is the site of a broad range of advanced materials research in the nuclear area. "The thing that really impressed me was the size and the weight of all these giant lead structures," Sweeney said. "They also had a 'mobile' hot cell. It was about the size of a bedroom and weighed several hundred tons. I suppose it was mobile with the crane they had there". Located beside PSI is Zwilag, one of the few operating, centralized, long-term spent nuclear fuel storage facilities in the world. "Touring the Zwilag facility was very interesting for a number of reasons," said Sweeney. "Besides the technical aspects, it shows how the Swiss are actually ahead of the game by building and operating this centralized waste storage facility. The Swiss have provided a good model to build on for safe waste storage in the rest of world, including the U.S." Zwilag is co-owned by Swiss utility companies and the government. It was built to house all of the spent nuclear fuel generated in Switzerland for 40-60 yrs, after which the spent fuel may be recycled or held for further storage. Zwilag is also receiving borosilicate "logs" from reprocessed spent nuclear fuel from Swiss commercial power reactors. This gives Zwilag great flexibility in managing irradiated fuel and reprocessed waste for the Swiss nuclear industry. The students also toured Liebstadt, a boiling water reactor, and even ventured into the water-cooling tower that was 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 100 percent humidity. "We had a great tour there," Sweeney said. "We went into the cooling tower at about the 12 meter level, which is actually not very high in the tower. There was steam coming up everywhere. Some of us had ties on, and our ties were blowing up over our shoulders. Of course, we were also dripping with sweat when we left." While the majority of the trip was geared toward touring the facilities, there was time built in for the students to soak in some of the local ambiance as well. Among the cultural experiences the students got to be a part of were a trip to the Niesen, a 7,000 foot high mountain that is known as the Swiss Pyramid, a train ride along Lake Geneva, and a visit to Montreux City. "Switzerland was just a great place for us to visit in the context of a program such as the FFE. Not only is it one of the most beautiful places in the world, but the Swiss really relish the opportunity to welcome and accommodate internationals from such former rivals as the U.S. and Russia. We were treated more than once to fantastic home-cooked meals on our tours", Sweeney said. "We saw a broad range of activities related to nuclear science and engineering. It provided us an opportunity to build long lasting professional ties and see some of the most successful and advanced facilities in the world." For more information on NSSPI, visit http://nsspi.tamu.edu/.

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