Nuclear scientist takes questions on subs, safety, stewardship

Fri 27 October 2023


Impact Engineering

Nuclear scientist takes questions on subs, safety, stewardship
Nuclear scientist takes questions on subs, safety, stewardship

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden recently announced a partnership between the Australian National University (ANU) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory to “strengthen cooperation in nuclear physics research and education”, building upon the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) signed in 2021.

To find out more about the School of Engineering’s role in providing that education, we sat down with Dr Elizabeth T. Williams, a nuclear scientist who will convene the new Nuclear Systems major and minor.

ANU College of Engineering, Computing & Cybernetics (CECC)

So, we’re starting a new program, I understand.

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Yes. It’s a new major and minor in Nuclear Systems for the Bachelor of Engineering programs. 

ANU CECC

Is that why you were brought to CECC?

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

In some sense. I was already in CECC, in the School of Cybernetics. But my current role here is AUKUS Response Lead. I was offered this role because I’m a nuclear physicist and I used to teach into the Master of Science in Nuclear Science. I have experience developing education around nuclear stewardship, nuclear reactors, that kind of thing. Most of my work in this role has been focused on nuclear stewardship. So basically, I’ve been looking at what’s likely to happen to Australia’s nuclear stewardship system as a result of AUKUS Pillar 1, and how can CECC help.

ANU CECC

Did they anticipate these partnerships with the US and the UK before they brought you on? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

So, since the AUKUS announcement in September 2021, the ANU Nuclear Stewardship Steering Committee and Working Group has been paying attention to what the Government has been doing, what they’ve been announcing, and what the workforce needs were likely going to be. Julieanne Dougherty has been coordinating that. And so they had started looking at what are the different ways that, for example, the UK and the US train people to do the kind of work they’re likely to need — not just for the conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines, but all of the regulatory work around that, all of the safety work that’s going to be around that, anything that will be required to develop this capability that will require nuclear expertise. 

We also, as part of that, started looking at what was going to happen to the broader ecosystem. So, for example, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) produces medical isotopes — something like 80 per cent of Australia’s medical isotopes — and they use a nuclear reactor for that. They need the same kinds of capabilities in many respects.  

There are many other sectors that also use nuclear technology and need this expertise. They can’t find people. We don’t train many people in Australia, and it’s very hard to find people from abroad because we’re not the only country that has a shortage of staff in these areas. And so engineering is one of the areas where we need people who actually have broad engineering expertise — so mechatronics, electrical, systems, and so on — but also understand how to work on nuclear systems. 

And so that was one of the reasons we put this program together. There is a clear market in all of these sectors — nuclear medicine, space, mining, agriculture, environmental monitoring, and so on — and all of these areas need people with nuclear expertise. They tend to need engineers, systems engineers, like the ones we train, to go and work at these facilities. But these people need to have some understanding of the nuclear technologies they’re going to be working with and designing for. And so that’s what our program is really designed to support. 

ANU CECC

The word “nuclear” comes with some baggage. People imagine a giant smokestack and, if they can name two nuclear reactors, it will be Chernobyl and Fukushima.  

Would you like to respond to people who have voiced concerns that nuclear technologies are unsafe or that nuclear energy is not renewable energy?

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

So, it’s important to understand that nuclear technology is not just about energy production. Nuclear technology does a number of different and very useful things. But all of these things require care. If we are going to use these technologies, you’re dealing with radiation, there are safety concerns. There are security concerns. You really have to understand those quite well and develop what’s often referred to as a `nuclear mindset’ – which is really keeping safety and security at front of mind whenever you’re thinking about using these technologies.

And that’s not just when you’re using them in the moment, that’s actually across their whole lifecycle. And so obviously that has significant implications when you’re talking about something like a reactor where there’s going to be waste and we are going to have to deal with that. We already have radioactive waste in Australia –  we committed to dealing with it some years ago. We produce some of it in labs on this campus, just doing our day-to-day work.

To address the question of energy production directly, it’s important to keep in mind that this is not just a technology question. It is a question of our society and culture and our understanding, not just of the technologies, but of how we would like to make use of them in our particular setting.

This program is not training people for a future civilian nuclear energy workforce. That’s not the point of this program. And at this point, I don’t think Australia is interested in going down that route. We are producing engineers to make sure we can still produce the medical isotopes we need to diagnose heart disease and those kinds of things. I kind of put the energy question to one side because I think that is a separate conversation that has to be had over time in collaboration with the Australian people. 

ANU CECC

Nuclear energy, we’re not going that direction? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

No, we’re not. I think it comes up as part of this discussion because of AUKUS, and because it’s easy to start comparing us to the US and UK for instance. They have nuclear-powered submarines. They also have civilian nuclear energy. And so, the programs that you see there are potentially preparing people for both of those pathways. Our programs are not preparing people to contribute to a civilian nuclear energy industry because we don’t have one.

And on one hand that presents a challenge because we don’t have the workforce we need for these other uses of nuclear technology. That said, that means that we can take a step back from the models we’re seeing in the US and UK and ask what’s appropriate for the Australian context? What do we need to design for?

We still need to focus on reactors because they’re the most safety-critical nuclear technology. If you understand how to think through safety and security for a fission reactor, you can understand how to apply that same mindset to any nuclear technology.  

ANU CECC

What if they got the degree and they did want to go to the US or the UK? Do you think they’d be adequately prepared to work in nuclear energy? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

No, they’re not. We’re not training nuclear engineers. They would have to do additional training to work as a nuclear engineer.  

ANU CECC

So, Australia has never decided to go down the nuclear energy route. And for that reason, we have a shortage of engineers needed for the medical isotopes you mentioned. Could you talk about some other uses for nuclear technology that might have motivated this initiative? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

There are a number of them. I’ll start with mining because I used to do some of that work. In that instance, we were looking at how we could use nuclear technology to decide what ore to process. You can use nuclear techniques to excite atomic nuclei. Excited nuclei like to emit radiation, and that radiation is characteristic of that nucleus. You can measure it and use it to estimate how much valuable stuff you have in an ore sample before you process it.

If you can identify which ore is worth processing without doing the processing, you can then just process the good stuff. This helps reduce the energy and the water required to get what you need.

Nuclear techniques are great for measuring certain things in a non-destructive way. For mining, it’s measuring how much of a certain atom you have in ore, which you couldn’t otherwise know otherwise unless you processed that ore completely.

They also use techniques like this for cultural heritage. You can use non-destructive nuclear techniques to figure out how a particular painting or sculpture was made. You can learn a lot about how something is made using these techniques without destroying the object.  

Whether it’s a mountain or a painting. 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Yeah, exactly.

You can also use nuclear techniques to answer environmental questions. I know across campus at the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility (HIAF), they have used their accelerator to look at things like soil erosion, which is quite important in Australia.

This is one of the reasons HIAF is funded as a national facility by the Department of Education through NCRIS [National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy] — HIAF and facilities like it support a broad range of applications.  

ANU CECC

How does it help with soil erosion? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

They basically measure Plutonium-239 – something that doesn’t naturally exist; it was deposited on our soil from nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and 60s – as a way of identifying erosion rates.

ANU CECC

Let’s go back to medical isotopes. Can you tell me more about that?  

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Yes, so medical isotopes are used for many different things—imaging and treatment. One of the most widely used ones is technetium-99m.

Technetium-99m is what’s used in imaging, but what places like ANSTO produce and ship to hospitals is Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). This is one of the atomic nuclei that can be produced when Uranium-235 fissions (or splits in two). Mo-99 has a long enough half-life that you can ship it to hospitals. It decays to Technetium-99m (Tc-99m), and this is what’s used for imaging. Tc-99m decays by emitting a gamma ray of a certain energy, and that gamma ray is what’s detected and used in the imaging process.

If you want to make enough Mo-99 for Australia’s health needs, you really need a nuclear reactor that uses enriched uranium as its fuel. ANSTO has one on its Lucas Heights campus, and that’s what they use to produce Mo-99.  

ANU CECC

So, you can see inside the body? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Yes. You can look for those gamma rays. You can use them to image soft tissues and organs, and it’s useful for diagnosing things like heart disease.  You can look at how blood is flowing through a heart using Tc-99m. 

ANU CECC

And then it dissolves into something harmless? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Your body gets rid of it fairly quickly—I think within 24 hours or so. It’s a good isotope for this kind of thing because the dosage a patient gets for a scan is fairly low, and because our bodies clear it out quickly. But you need to have some serious symptoms before you have that diagnostic procedure. Like with most medical procedures, there’s always a risk / benefit consideration.

But these isotopes are crucial for identifying some of these conditions and treating them appropriately. So, when ANSTO’s production facility goes offline for some reason, Australia has to do two things. The first is to ration its use of medical isotopes and the second is seek providers for these isotopes from abroad. 

ANU CECC

The half-life makes it hard to get it here in time? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Yes, the half-life makes it hard. But also, it’s important to understand that the world has a shortage of the facilities that can produce these. This has been identified as a critical problem in Europe, in the US and elsewhere.

ANU CECC

And we have just one here? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

We have one. There is funding to build a second manufacturing facility in this year’s budget. 

ANU CECC

So, we’ll need people to run it. 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

And people to build it. So that’s one important thing we will be training graduates for. 

ANU CECC

We’ve mentioned mining, medical, and environmental applications. Are there other uses we should mention?  

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Probably space.

Aerospace is another of our new majors and something that we’re building capability for on campus.

If you are producing technology for space, space is a high radiation environment. All of your components — your electronics, etc, are going to operate in that environment. So, we have to do those radiation studies here.

At the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility, which is going to be one of the places where our engineering students will get to do experiments, they just put in a beamline to simulate space conditions. It’s an impressive engineering project, and they’ve just installed it.

If we’re going to design something that’s going to go up in space, how do we think about what that looks like? How do we think about how the materials are likely to behave in those kinds of environments? How do we design for robust operation?

Also, if you have a facility like that, you need to understand how to manage the safety and security considerations – not just in the design, but in any maintenance, upgrades, etc.

ANU CECC

And then there are the nuclear submarines. Will Australians be building and maintaining those? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

The subs are nuclear-powered—but conventionally armed. 

In the early stages, we’ll buy a Virginia-class sub. This is a US design. The eventual plan is to have a trilateral design – I guess based on a UK design, but with US, Australian, and UK tech included. And so, for those subs, I think both Australia and the UK will have production lines going, but the reactor is going to be built in the UK and will basically be dropped into the sub completely intact. 

So, we’re not designing the reactor, but we are taking responsibility for stewardship. So that means that we will be responsible for dealing with the waste, etc. We will be responsible for making sure that it’s not a proliferation risk. So basically, we’ll need to make sure that fuel, which is highly enriched uranium, does not get used to produce nuclear weapons. 

The monitoring of that and the safeguarding of that will be Australia’s job. 

ANU CECC

Was it as simple as, ‘We had made a decision that Australia wants to be more self-sufficient with space exploration, and now the nuclear-powered submarines are coming, and we already have the shortages with the medical and the mining’, so the government calls up its national university and says get on it?’

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Actually, it’s not been like that. We’ve had a number of people from the government talking to us, visiting the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility, and so on, and we’ve been told our capability is important. But the government has never ordered us to put together these programs. This is us looking at what is the demand and who in Australia is best placed to supply the education that’s going to be needed to fill that demand well. This is also us reaching out and asking what the needs are likely to be and how can we best support those.

It’s important to keep in mind that Australia has very little nuclear science and engineering expertise at tertiary institutions. The ANU is one of the places that has a long history of doing work in nuclear science, primarily because of the Department of Nuclear Physics and Accelerator Applications. They’ve been doing work in this for many, many years, and they’ve also been running an educational program there, the Master of Science in Nuclear Science, since maybe 2006.

As I understand it, they put that program together initially because there was interest from the government. Places like the Australia Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, where they’re responsible for dealing with our non-proliferation and safeguards responsibilities both here in Australia and internationally – they were having trouble finding people who had this background. And so that program was put together for that purpose initially. It’s evolved over the years, but that’s the basis of much of the education that we have been refining and evolving through our conversation with industry and government.

And so Nuclear Systems major and minor are building on a lot of that work. Three of our courses are newly co-badged Masters courses that have already been running as part of the Master of Science in Nuclear Science for quite some time. And the new course that I will be teaching within engineering is a combination of some of the curriculum from two of the courses they run over there — one of which I used to teach into. 

We are of course adapting that to be more suitable for the engineering students’ training and their focus on systems.

ANU CECC

A student who comes here because they saw the floods and the fires and they thought, I’m going to get involved in renewable energy. Basically they’re thinking, I want to give back to society, right? It’s a large number of the ones that I’ve talked to.  

Are we expecting some of them to say, ‘Oh, wait, but there’s nuclear stewardship and this is important too?’  What do you think that that process would be like as they’re exposed to this area of study?

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

That’s a good question. I think we have a little bit of work—or actually a lot of work—to do with regards to what is nuclear stewardship about what why is it important to have people who can deal with this in Australia. I think we need to help people understand the responsibilities we’ve already inherited with regards to this and how those relate to, for example, environmental considerations.

Decommissioning and nuclear waste are part of that conversation. We already have nuclear waste, mostly in places that are not meant to store it for the long term. We also have facilities like ANSTO’s OPAL reactor that have a finite a lifetime. They will have to be replaced at some point. This means they will have to be decommissioned at some point. Again, doing that well in a way that is sensitive to Australia’s environment and ensures that we are taking care of our responsibilities with regards to our decision to make use of these technologies is quite important. And so, there is an environmental piece to the story. If we’re going to use these technologies and we have already decided to do that, how do we do that well? How do we keep doing that well?

How do we do that responsibly, in a way where we’re looking after our current responsibility, but also ensuring that what we pass on to our children and their children is possible to manage safely and securely in the long term? I don’t think those are easy questions, but they’re things that we have already committed to.

And around the globe, this is a growing problem, because many of the nuclear facilities, the reactor facilities, regardless of whether they’re for energy production or research or, you know, medical isotope production or whatever, they’re coming close to the end of their lives—or are at the end of their lives and are waiting to be decommissioned. And so the International Atomic Energy Agency has identified that as a challenge.

We don’t have the people to look after the decommissioning process appropriately for these facilities. And so we need people to do that. 

ANU CECC

When is the new major available? 

Dr Elizabeth T. Williams

Students will be able to take up the major and minor from next year, noting that the newly co-badged courses won’t be available until 2025. Our new course within CECC—Engineering Nuclear Systems (ENGN4549)—will be available in Semester 1 next year.

The major allows them to go into a bit more depth on, for example, the control systems side and the fluid mechanics and thermodynamics side. If somebody is interested in mechatronics, etc., they could do a major in that, but then they can also take the minor and that would broaden their career options.

arrow-left bars search caret-down plus minus arrow-right times