NEE students gain hands-on experience at plants, national recognition for work

Ph.D. students Bethany (Smith) Burkhardt, left, and Lyndsey Fyffe are aiding with decommissioning in the Hanford nuclear site in the state of Washington. (Photo: U.S. Department of Energy)

Across the country, schools of engineering devote their researchers to building a better nuclear power plant.

Vanderbilt University’s engineers specialize in making existing plants more environmentally friendly and in what happens after those plants have outlived their usefulness. It’s a niche role becoming more crucial as the nation addresses an aging but vital nuclear power system.

The U.S. Department of Energy chose Vanderbilt in 2006 as lead university in the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP), a designation that continues through 2017.

An 11-person Nuclear Environmental Engineering Group is entrusted with safely decommissioning nuclear power plants across the country and evaluating potential future nuclear fuel cycles and waste management strategies.

Vanderbilt’s NEE Group is working with officials at sites as close to home as Oak Ridge, Tenn. — where scientists enriched uranium for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II — and as far as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, where scientists readied plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

And then there are the 100 or so functioning nuclear power reactors in the United States, all either soon to be relicensed or nearing closure, which must be examined for environmental safety and brought up to modern standards.

David Kosson

“The next generation of nuclear power is very important as part of the base load of power generation for the country,” said David Kosson, CRESP director and Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering, Civil & Environmental Engineering. “We have more than 50 years and more than $100 billion yet to go in expenses in remediation of decommissioned sites. If you take a look at the Hanford site, it’s more than 500 square miles. We have decommissioned reactors at Oak Ridge, right down the road.

“We have a long-term mission of dealing with these materials. Several generations of professionals will be needed. We provide multidisciplinary expertise, the next generation of engineers and scientists, and our expertise saves the government hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The School of Engineering boasts the only student chapter of the American Nuclear Society that looks at the environmental impact of nuclear power, and Vanderbilt graduate students’ work in that area is attracting national attention.

For three consecutive years, they’ve taken first-place awards in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Innovations in Fuel Cycle Research competition, winning the Systems Analysis and Energy Policy category.

The most recent winner, Tim Ault, who will earn his Ph.D. in environmental engineering in 2017, is researching the possibility of fabricating thorium into nuclear fuel as an alternative to uranium. Mines for rare earth elements such as tin and titanium are unearthing mass quantities of thorium and discarding it as waste.

China is already considering the possibility of using thorium, he said, and his research would examine the pros and cons of such a switch.

Bethany (Smith) Burkhardt, who won the award in 2012, recently traveled to the Hanford site with 2013 winner Lyndsey Fyffe, a fellow doctoral student in environmental engineering, and Steve Krahn, professor of the practice of nuclear environmental engineering.

Krahn and James Clarke, professor of the practice and director of graduate studies for environmental engineering, are integral to the program. They served as either individual advisers or co-advisers on each of the award-winning projects.

Professors of the Practice Steve Krahn, left, and James Clarke. (Photo: Heidi Hall)

Burkhardt said her description of Vanderbilt’s unique nuclear environmental engineering program always meets with surprise from colleagues across the country.

“I have been told numerous times that the breadth and depth at which we cover nuclear energy topics is very impressive,” Burkhardt said. “It usually prompts requests for me to send publications their way and information on how they can contact the NEE group for future collaborations.”

Leah Parks

Students work collaboratively with a wide range of national labs, plus international partners in Canada and Europe. Working through CRESP, they help the U.S. Department of Energy tackle a long list of problems, Kosson said. Those include helping officials make decisions that are risk informed, set priorities, overcome technological problems with waste processing, evaluate plants’ durability and even understand the way people feel about nearby plants.

The program also leads to employment opportunities after graduation. Leah Parks (Ph.D. Environmental Management, 2008) is a dose and risk analyst for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a job that involves reviewing decommissioning plans and calls for a wide range of expertise.

“The curriculum at Vanderbilt helped prepare me for this role through a unique blend of environmental engineering, risk analysis, nuclear physics and environmental law,” Parks said. “Plus, the faculty are outstanding.”

Three winning years

Each year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy hosts the national student competition Innovations in Fuel Cycle Research with the goal of developing a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle. Vanderbilt University School of Engineering Ph.D. students in environmental engineering have won for three consecutive years.

Bethany (Smith) Burkhardt, 2012

“A Comprehensive Radiological and Chemical Risk Assessment of the Open Nuclear Fuel Cycle”

Burkhardt’s research focuses on studying the radiological and chemical risks from advanced nuclear fuel cycle options. This research was done in collaboration with the Electric Power Research Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Vanderbilt-led Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation.

Lyndsey Fyffe, 2013

“Developing Operational Safety Performance Measures for Nuclear Chemical Facilities”

Fyffe’s research includes reviewing the large database available in more than 60 published chemical industry accident reports completed by the CSB over the past 15 years to develop potential performance measures that will improve operating efficiency and safety for such facilities. Lyndsey collaborates with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management and CRESP to establish meaningful safety- and safety culture-related metrics to improve performance at several operating DOE facilities.

Tim Ault

Timothy Ault, 2014

“Potential Synergy: The Thorium Fuel Cycle and Rare Earths Processing”

Ault studies the environmental and radiological impacts of thorium fuel cycles which include a wide range of research interests such as mining and other front-end nuclear operations along with nuclear waste management. His level of expertise in the subject matter on thorium is one-of-a-kind and has been showcased at several conferences and landed him a 3-year $155,000 student fellowship with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Program.



Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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