The intersection of nuclear engineering and policy

June 4, 2019
| By: Savanna Hoover

“A successful life, by definition, includes service to others.” — George H.W. Bush

Nuclear policy and a shared commitment to serve tie together the Department of Nuclear Engineering and the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, creating cross-disciplinary interactions that connect the opposite sides of campus. The classes, seminars and organization relationships are advantageous to both students and Washington.

“Good nuclear policy is essential for maintaining peace and making sure countries have a diverse energy portfolio,” said Dr. Sunil Chirayath, associate professor and director of the Center for Nuclear Security Science and Policy Initiatives (NSSPI).

NSSPI is a multidisciplinary organization at Texas A&M, the first U.S. academic institution focused on technical graduate education, research and service related to the safeguarding of nuclear materials and the reduction of nuclear threats. In 2006, NSSPI was formed as a joint center between Texas A&M and the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station.

NSSPI combines the talent of internationally recognized researchers from the U.S.’s largest nuclear engineering department with renowned policy expertise from the Bush School. The team brings unique capabilities to face complex nuclear threats and proliferation challenges involving both policy and technology.

“NSSPI students participate in foreign field experiences, present their research results in national and international forums, and have premier internship opportunities at national laboratories,” said Chirayath. “Our students recently participated in the Domestic Nuclear Facilities Experience where they visited Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, Urenco and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Next month, our students will be touring facilities in Europe focused on nonproliferation.”

Effective policies achieve goals

Dr. Evans Kitcher, an assistant research engineer for NSSPI, teaches Nuclear Technology for Policy Makers, a class that informs Bush School students studying international affairs with an interest in nuclear security or energy on the technical aspects of nuclear engineering. “Effective policies achieve goals,” said Kitcher.

In turn, professors from the Bush School also teach classes for both nuclear engineering and government graduate students.

“Having a strong technical background in nuclear engineering and supplementing it with lectures and seminars from policy experts in the Bush School enhances your worldview,” said Athena Sagadevan, a nuclear engineering doctoral student. “I enjoyed the international security class I took with Dr. William Mayborn at the Bush School. We analyzed previous wars that have happened around the world and how they influence policies today. Nuclear policy in the U.S. is governed by its history, so knowing the past is essential.

“Policies tend to allow countries to have guidelines on how they act with one another,” said Sagadevan. “From an energy perspective, policy allows you to make sure that a certain quota of your energy comes from nuclear, meaning that it's clean. For example, pollution is a significant challenge in China. Currently, mainland China has about 45 nuclear power reactors in operation, roughly 15 under construction, and more about to start. Their policies are helping make them a more green country.”

“I was really encouraged to see the interaction between the nuclear engineering students and the Bush School students as the former would often help us understand the complexity of nuclear weapons production and the enormous costs involved in a weapons program,” said Dr. William Mayborn, a visiting assistant professor to the Bush School.

Sagadevan completed an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory where she used a code developed at Texas A&M to provide a score for reactors indicating how much they would need to be monitored. “This score can communicate the probability of misuse of a reactor to a policy maker,” she said.

Securing the globe

The Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM) is a nonprofit technical organization dedicated to the safe, secure and effective stewardship of nuclear materials and related technologies. INMM unites engineers, technicians, managers, policymakers, analysts, commercial vendors, educators and students across the globe. Texas A&M was the first university to start a student chapter.

As a student organization, INMM connects Texas A&M students to professionals from all over the world. “If you’re interested in international relations, making a concrete impact in the world and reducing nuclear weapons through nonproliferation, join INMM this fall,” said Mario Mendoza, a senior nuclear engineering student and the 2018-19 Texas A&M chapter president of INMM. Mendoza had the opportunity to visit the national INMM conference, which included ambassadors and representatives from the United Nations.

“Benefits for a student include meetings every other week with food, and events that put you in contact with people from industry, academia and national labs,” said Sagadevan, the 2018-19 Texas A&M chapter vice president. “At Texas A&M, INMM is a great platform to connect with undergraduate students, graduate students, students from the Bush School and our organization advisors.”

Every year there is an INMM liaison to connect the Department of Nuclear Engineering and the Bush School. In 2018 Audrey Hopkins, an international affairs graduate student, served as the liaison.   

In April, INMM hosted an advanced reactor safeguards workshop. The workshop gathered experts in safeguards and advanced reactor design from around the world and Texas A&M students to discuss current and future safeguards implementations for these new reactors. New challenges arise with the development of new reactor types, so current safeguards in place must be modified or new methods must be created to keep the world secure.

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