U.S. Department of Energy

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Two Perspectives of NPSI Progress

Karthik Subramanian, Chief Engineer at Washington River Protection Solutions, has served as NPSI Advisory Committee chair since the initiative's start. Sue Clark led NPSI for its first couple years before she was named the PNNL Energy and Environment Directorate (EED) Chief Science and Technology Officer (CSTO) in 2017. With NPSI set to largely close out in the spring-summer 2020 timeframe, Subramanian and Clark recently discussed some of their impressions of NPSI accomplishments.

How effective has NPSI been in achieving staff development goals?

Subramanian: When I first heard about NPSI, one of the major things the initiative wanted to accomplish was to begin training the next generation of staff, and also finding meaningful work for those folks so they can have a career in nuclear process science. I think realization of that goal is probably the initiative's major accomplishment. It will be a huge success story if NPSI and PNNL can continue the progress, and keep these staff employed and engaged in the work.

Clark: NPSI has been quite transformational in this regard. Laboratory Directed Research and Development funding, which supports NPSI, is a way we help manage our human capital pipeline in EED and PNNL. The initiative very successfully transitioned and created new opportunities for staff, bringing in postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates, but then also transitioning staff that already were in those types of temporary positions to early-career roles as Scientist & Engineer levels 2, 3, and 4.

How influential has NPSI been in strengthening the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory (RPL), which was a key objective of the initiative?

Subramanian: NPSI has had a huge influence on RPL's renaissance. What the initiative has accomplished in getting attention for RPL, getting programs and projects for RPL--you take a step back and look at that from a very high level and it's really an impressive success story. From my personal standpoint related to tank farm processing, I believe RPL is going to be absolutely necessary for future work at the U.S. DOE's Hanford Site to be successful.

Clark: When PNNL decided to keep the RPL, it took NPSI investments, General Research Equipment funding, and facility modification to build out our capabilities in that building, which is helping us evolve existing programs and create and obtain new ones. RPL still is a very expensive facility to operate, but you can do such unique things out there, and we have learned that sponsors, if they need the kind of work done in that type of facility, they're absolutely willing to pay for the costs of doing the work at RPL. So NPSI's contributions to strengthening RPL have been significant.

What else stands out to you about NPSI progress and accomplishments?

Subramanian: When you take a step back and look at NPSI, it's a success. In this business, people have 10-, 15-, and 20-year outlooks. What NPSI has been able to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time, 3 to 4 years to date and with about $15 million in funding (when it ends next year), it has been impressive. And then you consider what the NPSI team has achieved in getting attention for RPL, adding programs and projects there--it's a great accomplishment, and I'm excited to see what happens in the final year. Personally, my participation as committee chair has been very enriching. I have learned a lot from PNNL and NPSI leadership, regarding their own programs and how to develop activities like an initiative from an internal commitment. Working with the other advisory committee members also has been great--they're really top-notch folks.

Clark: One accomplishment is advancement of the task-specific release plan process, which was championed by NPSI. This approach allows PNNL to work with radioactive materials in the hazard facility of RPL, and work in a way that manages the risk and minimizes the size of the sample. Researchers can then take these tiny samples out of the RPL and safely access and use other capabilities at PNNL, whether it's the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory or other facilities. The process also enables access to unique facilities not on the PNNL campus--such as light sources, x-ray synchrotron light sources, and neutron sources within the U.S., and even around the world. That process has been very important in terms of building capabilities.

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