Associate Laboratory Director, Nuclear Science and Engineering
Oak Ridge National Labs
Origin of Oak Ridge National Lab
What role did the Oak Ridge National Lab play in the broader nuclear scheme?
The directorate that Alan Icenhour leads at the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) works on a number of areas to advance nuclear energy and technology. The ORNL is heavily engaged in the area of fission and helping ensure the sustainability of the current fleet of reactors and looking into advanced reactors. Originally, the major purpose for the ORNL was to demonstrate how to produce gram quantities of plutonium. This requires a reactor, which had not existed prior, and chemical separations. The ORNL reactor, which was a pilot for the Hanford production reactor, was constructed and operating in nine months. After receiving his degree in nuclear engineering, Alan Icenhour served as a commissioned officer on a Navy nuclear submarine. Icenhour began to really internalize and understand the technology by getting hands-on time with the technology. On a submarine, operational modes are constantly changed and power demand fluctuates greatly. The operational discipline that the Navy has established in their program permeates the commercial industry, oftentimes carried forward by former Navy Nukes.
Early Oak Ridge National Lab Projects
Was Oak Ridge National Lab your first job after leaving the Navy?
When Alan Icenhour left active duty, he chose Oak Ridge National Laboratory, seeing the opportunities for research and development and giving him the opportunity to attend graduate school. Earlier in his career, Icenhour looked at radioactive waste management and how the materials perform in the long term. He also studied the effects of radiation on material and was involved in early experiments to re-establish the capability to make plutonium-238. Plutonium-238 is used as the fuel in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG’s), such as those used on the Mars Curiosity Rover. The half life is relatively short, so that it produces enough heat to create energy, but is long enough to provide sustainable operation. As it decays, plutonium-238’s power generation capability goes down. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act specified the need for a national repository, but a number of reactors have shut down and spent fuel is currently being stored on those sites. Because of this, the idea has shifted to a consolidated interim storage, from which it would ultimately be moved to a repository. The volumes of waste materials generated is relatively small compared to the amount of energy generated.
Path to Becoming Associate Lab Director at ORNL
How did you become the Associate Lab Director at Oak Ridge National Lab?
Alan Icenhour benefited from having very good mentors throughout his career. After leaving active duty, Icenhour stayed with the Navy through the Navy Reserves for another 20 years, eventually retiring in 2010. As a current leader, Icenhour gives advice to aspiring future leaders, sharing that individuals need to be ready to act when opportunities come their way. While at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL), Icenhour took an opportunity to work in Washington, D.C. with the National Nuclear Security Administration. He learned a new perspective of looking at nuclear security issues and associated research and development. Upon return to ORNL, he became Group Leader of the research group and eventually, Division Director. One of the foundations of the a successful lab is understanding long-term directions of where you want to be. Having a strategy for directions, whether in nuclear fission, fusion, or radioisotopes, is important, but implementing it is key. An implementation plan considers specific things that need to be done, types of investments that need to be made, and things that need to be worked on with sponsors to shape project directions. A successful plan also requires assigning a responsible party for each step and holding them accountable to completing it.
How do you build a sense of stakeholder involvement and give people the sense that it is an important project for them?
When communicating with stakeholders, Alan Icenhour focuses on establishing an understanding of what needs to be achieved and why is it important. During the Manhattan Project, where Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) got its beginnings, people understood that they were working on something extremely important. Today, the nuclear community works on very important things that set the directions for the nation and the world, but that sense of important is sometimes lost. ORNL also performs research and develops radioisotopes that are used in targeted alpha therapy. This process takes an alpha-emitting radionuclide, attaches it to an antibody, and injects it into a patient to seek out certain organs. When it decays, the alpha energy can be deposited very locally. Having a direct impact on cancer is very grounding for Icenhour and reminds him of the importance of his work. Labs have the fundamental capabilities to produce radioisotopes that can then be used to develop medical treatments. Californium-252 is a spontaneous neutron-emitter, which could be used as a startup source for nuclear reactors, as imaging, or as part of research on the decay of californium-252. A high flux isotope reactor is required to produce californium-252. This process takes material that would typically be considered nuclear waste, put into a special reactor, and productize it into a resource.
Advanced Nuclear Manufacturing
What are some of the other areas that are under your purview at Oak Ridge National Lab?
As Associate Lab Director at Oak Ridge National Lab, many different programs are under Alan Icenhour’s purview. When the war ended, applications of this technology for peaceful purposes were discussed, including commercial nuclear reactors. In the last 75 years, the nuclear community has developed better materials, better manufacturing capabilities, and very high fidelity modeling simulation capabilities. If these capabilities existing in 1946, the path towards commercial reactors may have been significantly different. With additive manufacturing, one can take ideas that, traditionally may not be feasible for manufacturing, and print them using different types of materials. Advanced manufacturing techniques open up the opportunity to rapidly innovate and test ideas. Rather than making a component and subjecting it to well established standards and tests, advanced manufacturing considers making something based on past manufacturing and data gathered during the process, which could tie back to required properties. This process is currently in pursuit of being qualified as meeting quality standards.
Nuclear’s Next Generation of Leaders
What work are you doing to bring up the next generation of nuclear leaders?
Alan Icenhour defines the components that make a National Laboratory as a compelling national mission, world class facilities and resources, and really smart people that can take advantage of the mission and resources and do something valuable with it. It’s important that the National Labs have programs which can energize the next generation about the mission and the contributions that science and technology can make. This education effort spreads to all ages, including elementary school, high school, and the National Lab intern program, Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS). As part of NESLS, undergraduate students are brought into the labs and work side by side with researchers on various projects, such as in the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of LIght Water Reactors. Students have helped develop high fidelity modeling and simulation tools, worked on radiation detector systems, and participated in plutonium-238 production. Alan Icenhour’s personal mission is to ensure the peaceful use of nuclear technology. If nuclear energy is left behind as part of the energy solution, other capabilities, such as the medical field, may get lost. Efficiency may benefit energy demand in the U.S., but does not represent a global solution.