Keeping an Eye on Plutonium
Engineering researchers write computer code to keep track of dangerous materials in nuclear recycling facilities
University of Idaho Nuclear Engineering Program faculty member Robert Borrelli and graduate student Malachi Tolman are helping ensure that plutonium used in future pyroprocessing facilities never falls into the wrong hands.
Pyroprocessing is a way to recycle nuclear reactor waste back into fuel. It’s not yet happening on a commercial scale, but it’s developing globally.
Borrelli and Tolman are writing computer code that would track the amount and location of plutonium in a pyroprocessing facility, ensuring that the nuclear material can’t be diverted for non-fuel purposes — like making weapons.
The code will be customizable so it can be incorporated into the design process of any facility.
“Around the world, safeguards are really strong. No one has built a nuclear weapon from a civilian nuclear power plant program,” Borrelli said. “Now as we move to the new technologies, we want to make sure we’re ahead of the curve.”
Graduate students like Tolman are part of UI Idaho Falls’ expanding investment in graduate-level nuclear engineering education. For fall semester, 10 new students entered the program — the largest class ever. And UI Idaho Falls is funding six of those students.
More students will allow UI and CAES to deepen their collaboration with INL, which allows the university to understand the needs of the nuclear energy industry. A larger graduate student body also increases the university’s ability to compete for major research grants when opportunities arise, said Nuclear Engineering Program Director Richard Christensen.
“That is a strategic investment to jumpstart nuclear engineering,” Christensen said. “What we want some of those students to do is to work cooperatively with INL researchers and UI faculty to get the groundwork set so that when calls come out for proposals, we already have collaborations set.”
The research experience from these collaborations in turn benefits the students, many of whom pursue careers at INL.
Tolman, whose goal is to work for INL, said he enjoys studying in a field that changes the world.
“I've always had a knack for math and programming, and I want to use that to make a difference for the better,” he said. “I saw nuclear energy/engineering as one of many fields that are making immediate strides in helping to raise the global standard of living while minimizing the negative consequences of industrialization.”