Three Steps to Discovery in Aging Archives

John Gilleland   By John Gilleland, TerraPower, Chief Executive Officer

Archivists are seldom seen as innovators. But in an industry where nearly 40 percent of the workforce will be eligible to retire in the next few years, knowledge management has become a priority for many companies. For executives in the nuclear industry, there is much to be gained by retaining information with long-term aspirations in mind rather than merely preservation. This approach evolved at TerraPower out of necessity, as we found ourselves assembling one of the most comprehensive libraries of data on HT-9, a steel alloy developed for historic fast reactor programs.This approach is particularly relevant in the field of materials science. Decades of knowledge has been acquired in the pursuit of advanced steel alloys. In the case of HT-9, much of this research could not previously be commercialized. The work started nearly forty years ago through the collaboration between several national labs: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). But since the mid-1990s the results have been shelved, packed and stored away. The building of these Archives has frequently resulted from the devoted efforts of the same technophiles whose research is now shunned after having been abandoned by its sponsors. It is fortuitous that the technophiles in labs such as PNNL held their ground decades ago and saved specimens of HT-9 that were slated for disposal, never to be recovered. This is truly a case of "one man's garbage is another man's treasure."

That highlights the first step in making any archive valuable: approach archives as valuable resources ripe for investment. Critiques from the left and right blame slow R&D performance for impeding GDP growth, but the treatment of knowledge management as an expense rather than an investment has taken its toll as well. Roller coaster funding for basic science research has stymied real solutions on how to reduce the long-term environmental burden of used nuclear fuel. Decades of Department of Energy (DOE) research reminds us we can reduce the time-scale for managing wastes from many hundreds of thousands of years on the geologic time-scale to thousands of years. But there is a giant chasm between basic science and engineered solutions, the perilous "valley of death" between research and commercialization. Crossing the gap means managing expectations along the way.

Knowing what to expect is the second step to finding value in archived research. Undaunted by reams of dusty paper records, TerraPower didn't seek out to find answers in the DOE archives—we expected to find clues. Experimental data on these early fusion and fission test programs provided records for TerraPower to mine. From there, we employed lateral thinking and a multidisciplinary approach to make use of the information. This is where the value of government sponsored research into basic science shows up. It accelerates what the private sector can do to apply science and engineer solutions.

HT-9 of yesteryear was only tested for the high radiation tolerances (up to 200 dpa) needed at that time. As these levels were tested and found to be well within performance limits, it appears that HT-9 could have continued testing to even higher doses. It was not pushed to higher doses, however, because the U.S. fast reactor program was canceled and there was no immediate need. The Traveling Wave Reactor (TWR) renewed interest in the material because of the need for swelling-resistant steels, but additional development and testing is still required because radiation tolerance requirements are even more demanding (more than 500 dpa).

Finally, find value in the archives by enduring the tedium. Our preference was to begin the exploratory process with graduate students, but eventually we dedicated more experienced staff to start sifting through documentation of past materials specifications and characterizing archive specimens. It was only with their eyes for detail that we could have identified the technology improvements that previous researchers knew were possible but never attempted. Our skilled researchers turned up the details we needed to accelerate the design process and apply modern techniques and technology to get new results.

With great aspiration, controlled expectations and some old-fashioned steadfastness, we intend to bring new life to HT-9. Today's work will validate how microstructures of steel perform under different conditions (high heat, high radiation). Plans are to use the archival research from the national labs to inform the production of four variations to the old HT9 recipe. TerraPower's new criteria for what constitutes high performing steels are being developed at the University of Michigan's Ion Beam Laboratory (MIBL). At MIBL, researchers irradiate archive material to correlate how materials behave after ion irradiation to how they behave in a reactor environment. The ions emulate the effects of long durations of nuclear reactor exposure, but at a fraction of the cost and time required.

From the University of Michigan, TerraPower analyses the test results to understand how they will affect material behavior in the TWR, such as how heat treatments affect radiation swelling. From these test results, TerraPower crafts revised steelmaking specifications for new treatments with enhanced performance. Directions for fabrication of improved alloys are then provided to TerraPower's steel manufacturing partner, Kobe Steel. After fabrication, researchers back at the University screen these new steels developed by TerraPower and correlate how the materials will perform relative to the conditions that will exist in the TWR.

Based on the results, the best-performing HT9 variation will be used for neutron irradiation testing and for use in the first demonstration reactor. The steel alloys that TerraPower devises will be sent to the Russian fast reactor BOR-60 to validate the expected performance of the new material in a real reactor. Although neutron irradiation testing takes many years before yielding the desired data, the necessary level of testing will be achieved years before comparable levels of the new HT9 composite are used for core components in the first demonstration reactor.

Ultimately, TerraPower needs a metal that will last decades under extreme conditions in the reactor core. With the help of our partners and the archival data supplied by the national labs, we are well on the way to bringing this technology to reality. Along the way, we hope we can document details that might lend to unanticipated discoveries in the future.

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