Student Researcher Uses Computer Models to Improve Reliability of Nuclear Waste Storage

Tracy TranTracy Tran spent her summer conducting research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, studying the corrosive effects of atmospheric chloride (Photo Courtesy of Tracy Tran).

While nuclear waste, computer modeling software and steel canisters might not seem like the most interrelated subjects, student researcher, Tracy Tran, proved that their point of intersection is important to the safe storage of used nuclear fuel.

Tran spent her summer as a participant in the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) Program. Alongside her mentors, Ram Devanathan and Philip Jensen, Tran conducted research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory where she attempted to test and validate software used to predict the movement of corrosive particulates through the atmosphere.  The particulate matter could contribute to long term corrosion of steel canisters containing used nuclear fuel. For Tran, this research was more than just an opportunity to gain experience or bolster her resume; it was a chance to help ensure safe disposal of nuclear waste.

“Conducting research for energy and environmental projects was something I always saw in my future or down the line. I never imagined that at this point in my career I would ever be able to make an impact in that field. When I saw the MLEF program listing, I jumped at the chance. It was the opportunity to not only perform research in energy and environment but also a chance to participate at a Department of Energy national lab. Here, I was doing something that mattered in the field that was important to me,” Tran explained.

With a background in computer science from the University of Washington, Tran used her skillset to analyze the effectiveness of the DUSTRAN software program.  This program integrates a dust-emission module, meteorological model and dispersion model in order to predict the movement of various particulates through the atmosphere. The average day for Tran consisted of running simulations with variable parameters, such as source of chlorides and weather data.

Tran’s research focused on repurposing DUSTRAN to analyze chloride movement throughout the atmosphere. Chlorides may deposit on the surface of the canister and possibly lead to cracking over a time period of decades. Tran hopes that her research will help government programs develop preventative and mitigation strategies needed to safely transport and store used nuclear fuel. Despite focusing on radioactive waste containers, Tran’s research into atmospheric chloride dispersion also has many applications beyond nuclear waste.

“Though my project focused on the nuclear industry, think for a moment how many steel structures you encounter on a daily basis. Think about the bridges you are driving over, your car body panels, the pipelines running all across America, chemical processing plants, and the oil and natural gas industry. If these structures have the possibility of failing, we need to know when and where. The annual cost of corrosion in the US alone is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. I validated a software system's potential to model the deposition of corrosion-causing contaminants onto steel. The implications of this research show we can predict and prevent structural failure and save money and lives,” Tran said.

Being able to conduct research on solutions to real-world problems at a national lab with brilliant researchers was inspiring to Tran. When asked about her favorite part of the MLEF program, she said, “It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the negativity that we see in the media all the time: ocean levels are rising, CO2 pollution at an all-time high, another species has become endangered. It’s so easy to feel that we’ve reached a precipice that we’ll inevitably fall over. But the coolest thing for me was being in the national lab atmosphere and seeing that people are researching solutions, real solutions with real promise.”

The Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship program is administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed for DOE by ORAU.