Jeff Chamberlin

Associate Assistant Deputy Administrator

National Nuclear Security Administration

January 10, 2021

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Ep 348: Jeff Chamberlin - Associate Assistant Deputy Administrator, U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration
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Bret Kugelmass
So we're here today on Titans of Nuclear with Jeff Chamberlain, who's a Deputy at the US National Nuclear Security Administration's Material Management and Minimization Office. Jeff, great to have you here.

Jeff Chamberlain
Great to be here, Bret. Thanks.

Bret Kugelmass
Awesome. So as we like to do before we get into the very weedsy topics, we would just love to hear a little bit about you. Maybe tell us where you came from and how you got into the sector.

Jeff Chamberlain
I grew up in a small town outside of Boston, about 30 miles northwest of Boston called Groton, Massachusetts. I was born and raised there and I did my education up in the Boston area and then, eventually, after graduate school, as many people do, migrated down to the DC area in 2003. And I've been here ever since.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, well what topics were of interest to you? How did you decide what to study and what your early career was focused on?

Jeff Chamberlain
Well, I came from a family of teachers. My dad was a middle school social studies teacher for 39 years. I always had a lot of history and social studies type stuff in my house growing up. I studied political science as an undergrad and then, after living abroad for a couple of years, I came back and went to grad school for an international relations degree, so security studies and international law graduate school. Kind of a generalist degree. And I came down to DC. I really was interested in public service and that's what many people do. That's what brought me down to DC and there's then a winding path of career choices that got me to the nuclear field as kind of a newbie in nuclear stuff in 2007.

Bret Kugelmass
I want to hear a little bit about that winding. So after you got your degree and you've got some academic studies under your belt, what was your first real experience? What job did you take on it and what were some of the projects that you had to get involved in?

Jeff Chamberlain
I came into the government as a presidential management fellow. And I had the opportunity early on to do a three month rotation at the Office of Management Budget in the White House complex and ended up back there in a full-time job after I did the rotation. I was working at OMB as their program examiner for Army investment programs. At the time, the OMB examiner for the National Nuclear Security Administration sat across the hall from me and I was looking to, at some point, move out of the 35,000 foot view level of government that OMB provides - which is a fantastic experience - but really get down into program management. And I was poking around on job postings one day and I saw this job posting that kind of set the light bulb off in my head. I was like, Oh, that's why I went to grad school. I didn't know that at the time, but that's what I went to grad school for. And it turns out it was a posting for an NNSA job and what was then the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. They were looking for a certain skill set that matched some of the stuff I was doing at OMB. And I talked to the OMB examiner at the time and she said, Oh, this is an up and coming program and a really great place to be and recommended it. And so I was lucky enough to apply for the job and get accepted, but without a lot of background in kind of the weeds of nuclear affair. I had a lot of other skills, but the nuclear stuff was very new to me.

Bret Kugelmass
What were the issues? What were the pressing issues when you took on this new role? What did they have you working on?

Jeff Chamberlain
It was actually the program that was- we were renamed and reorganized in 2015. But it was really a lot of the programs that I'm now responsible for managing with my team now. That was in late 2007 that I went to NNSA and at that time it was still fairly soon post 9/11. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative and NNSA were really focused on securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world, weapons and materials from civilian applications so that they couldn't fall into the wrong hands and be used for malevolent purposes against the United States or our international partners and allies. There was a big focus on securing vulnerable nuclear material.

Bret Kugelmass
Securing vulnerable nuclear materials... what would that be? I mean, would that just be like research reactors that had higher level of enrichment in the core?

Jeff Chamberlain
Yeah. So after 9/11, the US really- and there was some of this work being done prior to 9/11, going back even into the late 70s started up. But we really focused on - yes - converting research reactors from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium, so reducing the demand for HEU in civilian applications. And then in tandem with that- and we're still doing these things overseas. To this day, we still have a number of projects going on in these areas. Also, removing nuclear material from countries, trying to clean countries out of highly enriched uranium in their research and civilian applications, while helping them be able to do those things with low enriched uranium. And then we return the HEU either the United States or work with the Russian Federation.

Bret Kugelmass
Are there other applications other than research reactors where you had highly enriched uranium? I don't know, like medical this or that?

Jeff Chamberlain
Yeah, actually, that's a great question. Yes, we also have worked very closely over the last 10 years to convert the global production of molybdenum-99, a critical medical radioisotope use in thousands of patient procedures a day here in the US. We've worked with the global producers of moly-99 to convert their production from HEU to LEU and we're also supporting US companies to stand up non-HEU based moly-99 production in the United States.

Bret Kugelmass
Maybe if we can just kind of like rewind in history a little bit. How come we were so free to just let highly enriched uranium around the globe before? Obviously, they knew that - we'd built the bomb, so they knew that this kind of stuff can be used in malicious ways - but they didn't think it was that much of a risk, I guess, before? What was the operating theory then - and I understand 9/11 happened - but what actually changed about the threat mode that precipitated this type of action?

Jeff Chamberlain
Well, it goes back to the Atoms for Peace program. And the US exported metric tons - a lot of metric tons - of highly enriched uranium between the 50s and the 80s to support countries to stand up peaceful nuclear programs, in exchange for not standing up weapons programs. That was a very successful program. It made all the sense in the world at the time. And I think with the Nonproliferation Treaty in the 70s and the ARC conversion program actually started in the late 70s. US kind of started dipping its toe into the waters of, Hey, we should be figuring out ways to help research reactors operate with LEU, but then of course, like it did for many things, then 9/11 really changed the perspective on the outsiders and organizations such as that in the world of focus at that time and still is really on making sure they don't get this material to do things that would harm the United States with it. So the threat perception has changed by 9/11 a lot and we're dealing with the legacy of the Atoms for Peace program, which was a great positive program. It made sense at the time.

Bret Kugelmass
And is the concern state actors or non-state actors, specifically, when it comes to using the highly enriched material that's out there? Because I feel like it would be beyond the capability of a non-state actor to even take a research reactor that had let's say 90% enriched and actually do anything real with it.

Jeff Chamberlain
Again, there are kind of limits to what we can say on this show.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, don't go into detail you can't.

Jeff Chamberlain
Our program is one within a number of programs within NNSA's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, or DNN as we call it. DNN is concerned with the threat of both state actors and non-state actors and we do a variety of things across the spectrum of nuclear security and nonproliferation to address both threats. I think, broadly, you can say that the hardest thing for a non-state actor to do would be to get the material to make an improvised nuclear device. Our concern has always been going- and our program is really focused on getting to the material and making sure it's secure. We have folks that install security upgrades of facilities. We have a Office of Global Nuclear Material Security that does that. And then we try to work with the material and also just provide novel solutions to new solutions, so that LEU, we hope, can be the material of the future for research reactors.

Bret Kugelmass
Cool. And does LEU- what does that go up to? Is that just 5%? Or can you go up to 20% and still be proliferation resistant?

Jeff Chamberlain
We've converted- all the reactors we've converted have been below 20%, most of them in the 19.75% range. So we convert them to high-assay LEU and that's kind of a sweet spot for a place where most reactors can still do science they want to do, but also, it's obviously far preferable from a proliferation perspective than 90%.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, of course. And one of the constraints here, as I understand it, is that you want to keep the form factor of the reactor, the same- the literal geometry that the fuel has to sit into. And if you have lower enriched, that means you've got a density issue with how many 235 atoms you can pack in there, so you might have to then switch from one form factor of fuel to another. Is that the technical way that it's managed? You switch from some sort of higher enriched ceramic to lower enriched metallic form or something like that?

Jeff Chamberlain
I'll caveat right off the start that I'm most definitely not a nuclear engineer, but I've learned enough in this job to be dangerous. And I know you've had some folks from our program on in previous episodes over the years, too. But it depends on the reactor. We've been able to convert a lot of reactors around the world with LEU fuels that already exist. And our engineers have found really smart and creative ways, in a lot of cases, to tweak the geometry of the reactor for add beryllium or add- do things and tweak the reactor core in ways that you can get the flux you need using existing LEU fuels. There are what we call the high performance research reactors in the United States and Europe, primarily, that are going to require new high density LEU fuels that our programs are supporting the development of that will pack more uranium into a single fuel assembly and allow these reactors to get the flux they need with LEU. Those fuels are still in process of being qualified.

Bret Kugelmass
And has there ever been a consideration of saying, instead of swapping out the fuel, we're just going to build a brand new building. It's going to have the latest and greatest in security. We're going to- it's going to be like, we'll invent a new type of low enriched pool type reactor, so you can- we'll just give you a new reactor and a new building and a new security protocol altogether. We'll build it on the same camp- we'll tear down what you got, we'll build it on the same campus, and it'll be better than ever. And maybe that won't even cost that much, because we'll just do the same thing every time. Like this will be our standardized "let's give them a research program" building.

Jeff Chamberlain
No, we haven't gone that far. And I think probably a lot of it's cost and a lot of its the face that we've been able to find, again, creative and novel solutions for the existing research reactor fleet using LEU. So we haven't had to go there, because we've been able to work with reactors. We have 75 reactors we've converted around the world that are now operating successfully with LEU. I think we just haven't needed to go that far.

Bret Kugelmass
Right, if you got it working, just stay with what works. So 75 down, how many to go?

Jeff Chamberlain
I don't have the exact number in my head, but we're definitely down to the harder cases again, these high performance reactors that require new fuel. For example, in the US, there are 28 facilities in our scope and we've converted 20 of them and the ones that can convert with existing fuel, they're all converted in the United States.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, you're converting US reactors also. What's the proliferation concern in the US?

Jeff Chamberlain
First of all, first and foremost, it's a lead by example issue. We're out preaching the gospel to the world of HEU minimization in civilian applications. And, hey, we need to do this and you need to do this. And so the best way to lead and really create momentum for that is to lead by example here at home. So that's one thing and we've been very successful in that. And we've gained a lot of credibility overseas, because we can say to people, Hey, we're doing it in the US. Also, HEU is a finite resource. It's not going to last forever. We don't have any HEU enrichment capability. So long term too, there's a material issue with highly enriched uranium. And it's going take more enriched HEU than it will the high-assay LEU, for example.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, absolutely. Cool. Okay, great. Anything else on that overhaul program that we should cover?

Jeff Chamberlain
No, I don't think so. I think we may touch upon some more of it as we go into the other stuff, but we're proud of it. And I think we have a great team that does great work.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, it's great. And I think it's probably a lot of fun for the- how many reactor designers out there actually get to design reactors that then get built? Because in the academic world, there are so many paper reactors and it's all fantasy, but this is like a chance for like a real core designer to do something really novel and see it implemented in practice. How often does that happen?

Jeff Chamberlain
Absolutely. These projects, we found the facilities love them, because it's a unique once in a lifetime project for the facility. And I'd also add that our program in the US has produced dozens of PhD students and nuclear scientists and engineers who have done work on our program. We're proud of the contribution we've made to nuclear education and the next generation of nuclear experts in the complex.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I think, just for that reason alone, it's probably worthwhile. It's definitely a worthwhile program, I should say.

Jeff Chamberlain
Oh yeah, we think it's definitely worthwhile.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Oh, but there's one more little quick question on that topic. Does the host country get to participate in the reactor redesign, also?

Jeff Chamberlain
Absolutely, very much so. It's a very- we're a cooperative program. May be an obvious point, but we only work with countries that allow us in and want to partner with us. And so it's a very iterative process. We have our experts at Argonne National Laboratory and the other national laboratories that do safety analyses and - excuse me - all of the thermal hydraulics and neutron physics work, but they- a lot of the original work is done by the facility experts themselves. And then it's an iterative process between them and our laboratory experts to go back and forth, validate each other's modeling, validate each other's calculations, and work to make sure that yes, the LEU fuel we're going to put in there is going to work. We can get it approved by the regulator. It's going to be safe and it will do the science- enable the facility to really do the science they want to do. So it's a very kind of cool, iterative, intellectual academic process to convert a reactor.

Bret Kugelmass
Cool. I love it. Double thumbs up for me. Alright, so next project. What else you working on?

Jeff Chamberlain
In very close connection with everything we just talked about, but also with the larger portfolio of programs I mentioned within the DNN, within the NNSA Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation. We identified a couple years ago that, Hey, with the oncome of the advanced reactor industry, it's really important to figure out how to engage our NNSA and DNN programs with advanced reactor companies and vendors. And this kind of goes to this- I think maybe we can say a gap in some respects that's existed at times between the nuclear energy and nonproliferation communities over the years. And so we think it's important that we work and that we engage and work with companies to make sure that safeguards and security and export control, they're all being considered by US companies as they develop advanced reactor technologies and look to especially export them, which is where we come in, because we're an international program by nature. And so a couple years ago, we identified that we really wanted to start engaging with this community. We actually had a funny interaction. I did a coffee break at an industry group presentation we made and one of the companies came up to me, a member representative of a company came up and said, Hey, we're really glad to NNSA's here, but you guys are kind of a mystery to us and we don't know much about you. So we've undertaken an effort in DNN - and this is across all of our program offices, not just the one I work in in my day job, too - over the last couple years to really kind of try to demystify NNSA - and that's an ongoing process - but to really promote cooperative engagement with industry, because we support the successful deployment of US advanced reactors. It's going to be good for nonproliferation. It's good for our international relationships. It's important for us to have those long, enduring relationships with countries around the world that nuclear energy provides. We want to help this and support them and we have a lot of skills and expertise developed over the last few decades in what we do that we think can support what they're trying to do.

Bret Kugelmass
So what's the manifestation of this? How is this taken form, this actual support?

Jeff Chamberlain
We've been excited to announce recently via press release - and we've been making the rounds with industry to let them know about it - what we call our new US Nuclear Nexus web portal that has been developed and is being managed for us by Argonne National Laboratory. It's a portal we developed to facilitate that deeper and broader engagement between our programs and advanced reactor companies, especially.

Bret Kugelmass
What's the website? Just in case people are following along and they actually want to go to it and visit it as we're talking? This is the US Nuclear Nexus. What's the website?

Jeff Chamberlain
It's anl.gov/nuclear-nexus.

Bret Kugelmass
Got it.

Jeff Chamberlain
Or you can Google Nuclear Nexus and it'll come up. The website is hosted by Argonne National Laboratory and they do the management for us, but yeah, that's the web link for those folks.

Bret Kugelmass
Perfect, can you give us maybe a couple of case studies of how participants or stakeholders have used this web portal so far?

Jeff Chamberlain
Sure. Well, it's really new. We're still- we've been really encouraged early on by the number of hits we've gotten. We're getting early on around 1,000 hits a day and we're in the hundreds every day now. So that's been really encouraging. What companies can do is they can come to the site and right now it's sort of a couple of purposes. It's a repository of information on safeguards, security, export controls, proliferation resistance for companies. Especially newer companies that may not be used to working with the federal government or especially NSA can come and just get basic information on things they should be considering in terms of safeguards and security. But then the second function is also there's a very user friendly function where they can contact us. And they can contact through Nexus to say, Hey, I have this question about safeguards, or I need to know X about security. The way we set up the website is to basically say, Hey, I'm an A and I'm looking for B, or I'm X and I'm looking for Y. And the website's goal is to help facilitate their connection with our experts that sit in the laboratory complex to get the information they need to help them move forward.

Bret Kugelmass
Very cool. And what are some of those topics that are covered? Give me the kind of like the high level big branches of types of information people are searching for her.

Jeff Chamberlain
International nuclear security is a big one and also international nuclear safeguards. Those are two areas where, especially, we want to urge companies to engage with us early in their design processes.

Bret Kugelmass
And actually, can you just - for maybe some of our newer audience that doesn't understand the distinction between the two - can you just spell out what is security and then what is safeguards?

Jeff Chamberlain
Yeah, and I'll say this in my layman's terms, because I'll admit I don't work in either on a day to day basis. And I'll defer to our experts to correct me if I'm wrong, but security is a wide suite of things in terms of securing a facility, both physically, but in cybersecurity, looking at insider threats and sabotage. And so the whole spectrum of things that we consider, ensuring that that material can't be used or diverted from a level and purposes and the facilities here. Safeguards is actually our ability to count the material and track the material in the facility and know if it's gone missing or not. And so the two are very complementary, but that's a really good question. And I apologize in advance to my folks at NNSA if I botched their official deputy,

Bret Kugelmass
As far as I understand it - and maybe you can just correct me if I'm wrong - security is about protecting the facility from some sort of intrusion or attack of any sort. And then safeguards is about protecting the use of the material, making sure that the material isn't used in a malicious way,

Jeff Chamberlain
Making sure that we know we can account for it all and know if it's if something has gone missing, we'll known. Safeguards are designed to let us know.

Bret Kugelmass
Got it. Okay, cool. All right, what are some of the branches of topics on the website?

Jeff Chamberlain
Another big, really big one - it's critical for all companies to really understand well, understand both responsibilities and how we can work with them - is export controls. That's going to be huge. And anybody who's going to be eventually looking to sell reactors overseas is going to work closely with our export control folks. We have a regulatory function there, but there's also an educational function and we have a lot of expertise in our offices to handle that. So Code of Federal Regulations Part 810 that governs exports of sensitive technology, for example, is a big one that companies need to consider. We have the folks at NNSA who can help them work through those issues and explain to them and work with them to understand those issues better. And then another, the last one that we really focus on the website - it's a newer one for us and that we're still flushing out - is this idea of proliferation resistance. And it's building on some experiences, actually, that we had in our reactor conversion. We're working to figure out how we can work with facilities overseas and we're starting with research reactor designers to essentially figure out how we can help their new research reactor designs make less of the bad material that we're concerned about from a threat perspective, while helping them optimize the performance to do more of the good things they want to do with the facility. And we have some experience doing this out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action working through that. We had a successful case study in that and we're looking to- it's kind of at the intersection of security and safeguards and fits right into that as well. So we have that up on the website and we're looking to figure out how we can engage with companies to help them better.

Bret Kugelmass
When you say, "make less of the stuff that we're worried about," what are some of the strategies there? Is it just find a way to increase the ratio of plutonium-240 to plutonium-239 over the lifetime of the reactor? What are the potential strategies?

Jeff Chamberlain
Or if a facility is designed in a way that might produce a little more plutonium than they really need to or use materials that are producing more plutonium than they need to and we can figure out a way to use material that are less plutonium, and able to do the same science, let's look at how to do that. Again, it's that same type of creative thinking about reactor core design, fuel geometry that our nuclear engineering experts in the lab complex are really good at and it comes out of decades of experience converting research activities. It's directly related. So that's one example. I mean, is a facility the right size? For example, is a facility being built with the right size hydraulic pumps and hot cells that are commensurate with the mission it stated it wants to perform? So that if- a concern is if the country say had a government coming someday who wanted to use it for different purposes, we would like them to have a facility that they couldn't use for those level of purposes or change of routine or something like that. There are a lot of possible scenarios. But at the end of the day, we really want to help facilities do the science they want to do. And in the case of the advanced reactor companies' work, it remains to be seen how this might apply. Because they're not doing science, they're producing energy. But I think some of the same principles may apply. And we'd like to engage with companies to have this discussion.

Bret Kugelmass
That's awesome. Okay, cool. And that's part of the more broader function of your organization, not just the website. The website, the portal helps put person A from the private sector and person B from the government in contact with each other, has a list of topics. But then at the end of the day, it's that direct communication once they're together that's really helped the commercial sector understand what the requirements are.

Jeff Chamberlain
Correct. I'll also add, too, in the portal. This is an experiment for us. We've never done something quite like this. We state in every industry presentation we do, we encourage industry to give us feedback, because the goal is for it to be helpful to them and engaging with us. We also envision that at some point when our programs have solicitations they want to put out to engage with industry with with funding resources that we would have those solicitations up on a site, that's a place that you'd come to access those. We're also closely linked with the DoD GAIN website and GAIN has a link to us. We have monthly meetings with them to make sure we're fully coordinating with GAIN and supporting what they do, because they're really the big portal of entry, I think, for advanced reactor companies to engage with DoD. We want to be linked with them.

Bret Kugelmass
It's great, great. I think it's a great project. I think that it's important to have this online resource that people can go to be able to kind of even figure out what their next steps are. I think this has been a great step that you guys have taken. Are there other projects that we want to chat about or highlight today?

Jeff Chamberlain
I think those are the big ones. Nexus is really what we wanted to highlight. That's our new thing that we've just recently put out. And, again, a lot of it is the challenge of getting the word out, so thank you for helping us do that. Again, because it's only as useful as it is known and available and people come to it right. And we also want to improve it as time goes on. This is definitely Rev 1 that's out there now and we hope to add to the content and broaden it to make it more useful for industry and helpful. This deployment of US advanced reactor technologies is a many years project ongoing, so we want to be there side by side to support that.

Bret Kugelmass
We've got like an audience of at least 50,000 nuclear enthusiasts, so hopefully this brings some attention to your project. I mean, I just think it's so important. Anything that breaks down the barriers of communication and any barriers that exist towards new reactor deployment, I mean, that's what - to put our cards on the table - that's what we're all about. How can we help the next generation of nuclear companies ramp up to the point where we can actually address our clean energy challenges, at a global scale. Obviously, there are a lot of American design companies that need this kind of information to make their vision a commercial reality. I just think it's great what you guys are doing.

Jeff Chamberlain
We want to say thanks, I appreciate that. We want to stress, too, for all the areas that there is just inherently and naturally friction between the nuclear energy and nonproliferation communities, but just by virtue of the seats we sit in, I view this and I think we do in DNN as one of those areas where we really have overlapping and mutually reinforcing interest here. We all want to see success here. I think it's exciting to me from that perspective. I feel it is a really an issue where we can bridge some of those divides between the energy and nonproliferation community that really work together, hopefully, in an effective way. Because we all want to see this work in the US back out there in the world on this stuff.

Bret Kugelmass
Awesome. All right, I'm gonna put you on the spot now, before I let you go. We always like to end with someone giving us their vision for the future and the one rule is it has to be optimistic. So tell us, what does the world look like- the nuclear world look like 10, 15 years from now?

Jeff Chamberlain
Sitting from the seat I sit in and we sit in in DNN, we certainly want to see US companies back out there. We want to see US products out in the world. We want to see them have the products that have the best standards possible, security and safeguards incorporated. We think that's an area that we're really good at in the US. And that should give- should be a positive for the products that our companies deploy. Other countries that we're competing with don't do that as well, don't care about it as much. So worldwide, our companies are starting to succeed out there and it's being done with safeguards and security incorporated into it and would be a really huge step forward in 10 or 15 years if we can be close to that goal.

Bret Kugelmass
Jeff Chamberlain, everybody. Thank you so much.

Jeff Chamberlain
Thanks, Bret. I really appreciate it.

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