NNSA hopes new online portal will make nuclear non-proliferation easier to understand

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The National Nuclear Security Administration wants to make it easier for people in the nuclear industry to understand the complexities of non-proliferation. It’s brought all of the information together in an online portal called US Nuclear Nexus. For what’s going on, Argonne National Laboratory principal systems engineer Allison Bennett Irion and NNSA Associate Assistant Deputy Administrator Jeff Chamberlin spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Here with what’s going on Argonne National Laboratory principal systems engineer Allison Bennett Irion. Ms. Irion, good to have you on.

Allison Bennett Irion: Thank you very much.

Tom Temin: And NNSA Associate Assistant Deputy Administrator, Jeff Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain, good to have you on.

Jeff Chamberlin: Great to be here, Tom. Thanks.

Tom Temin: All right, so non-proliferation, I tend to think of as weapons, but you’re talking to the nuclear power industry also. Tell us what’s going on here. How does this all connect under the NNSA?

Jeff Chamberlin: So I represent the NNSA Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, and we do a variety of things to reduce global nuclear dangers, working around the world, and also within the United States. Things such as securing facilities with nuclear material, understanding how to safeguard that material and count it and identify whether it’s missing, those are just examples of what we do. At the same time, there’s a new industry in the United States looking to develop and deploy a new generation, the next generation of nuclear power reactor technologies. And this is part of a larger effort to address climate change, and has been a very important initiative have past and the current administration. We have not traditionally worked in non proliferation as much with the nuclear energy and power community. And so one of our challenges, how to integrate with this community and connect the expertise of our federal and national laboratory staff in the non proliferation and nuclear security sphere, with these companies that are looking to deploy technologies, and that are considering issues such as security and safeguards in their technologies prior to deploying them.

Tom Temin: So you’re talking about like this new generation being developed a very small reactors that can be deployed locally.

Jeff Chamberlin: Correct. That’s one example of a type of what we call advanced reactor would be a small modular reactor, a much smaller reactor that can be put in many different places.

Tom Temin: Okay. And Allison, what does the Argonne National Laboratory bring to this effort?

Allison Bennett Irion: Argonne National Laboratory has worked very closely with the NNSA to design and build US Nuclear Nexus.

Tom Temin: You engineered the portal, in other words.

Allison Bennett Irion: Exactly. So we helped build this portal, and it’s an exciting activity. We have a lot of information that says is growing in this advanced reactor space. So it’s nice to have one stop that has the latest information, and will continue to evolve as this exciting new area evolves as well.

Tom Temin: And what sorts of information can they obtain at the portal?

Allison Bennett Irion: As someone enters the portal, we tried to design it where someone can say, I am an X, and I’m looking for a Y. So we have information that covers four distinct pillars. One is related to export control information, which is a topic of extreme interest at US industry, as it can be a complex area to navigate. We also have information on international nuclear safeguards, international nuclear security, and proliferation, resistance and nuclear systems.

Tom Temin: Well, let me pose a hypothetical. Suppose I’m a company and I’m making components for these modular nuclear reactors or some type of commercial use item. It could be, therefore, that there are export controls on the things I’m making, because they could be used, say, by China for some other purpose. And so would I be able to find out what is the status of my ability to export this? If I had that question and went to the portal, I would find that answer?

Jeff Chamberlin: So yes, the portal will help connect them to our experts who can walk through and address export control issues with them. And the portal will also have basic fundamental information about export controls. But we do make clear because our export control function and NNSA is a regulatory function, the portal is not a solver of export control problems in and of itself, but it will help connect companies with the people and the experts that can help them answer their questions.

Tom Temin: It’s almost like a metadata source so that you know where to go to get the actual detail that you need at some point for real business.

Jeff Chamberlin: Yes, we actually, it’s a funny anecdote, but early, about a year ago, we were giving a presentation on our NNSA programs, and we had a company at a coffee break, come up to us and say, Jeff NNSA is really mysterious stuff and we don’t understand it because the main office and Department of Energy that deals with this industry is our Office of Nuclear Energy. And so Nexus you can think of it almost as an attempt in an effort to demystify NNSA and the things we do and help companies understand them better as they look to deploy these technologies.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Jeff Chamberlain, he’s associate assistant deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration, and with Allison Bennett Irion, a principal systems engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory. And who are the people that you expect to be using this portal? What types of companies or individuals or is it simply open to the public that might be curious?

Jeff Chamberlin: It’s open to the public, anybody can access the portal. We expect those most interested in it will be companies and employees in focusing companies who are interested in learning more about safeguard security. And again, how to access NNSA support resources assistance to employ these concepts and their designs early in the process.

Tom Temin: And what kind of cooperation did it require from different components of the agency, and maybe from the Energy Department itself, other components of Energy, to bring all this under one portal because sometimes people like to husband that stuff a little bit?

Allison Bennett Irion: There’s a lot of activity in this space. And we’ve made a concerted effort to make sure that our effort with US Nuclear Nexus is complimentary. So your question about export control is a great example where we’ve worked really closely with other agencies such as the Department of State, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Commerce, so that we’re able to show the whole landscape of who has jurisdiction over what, so provides them a little bit of a viewpoint of who to go to with what type of questions. We’ve also worked really closely with the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Well, Nexus can be accessed independently. You can also access the web portal through DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy has a gateway for accelerated innovation in nuclear or GAIN, which a lot of US industry is familiar with. So as they go to GAIN, which focuses on connecting US nuclear industry with DOE R&D infrastructure for development of innovation domestically, they can also tap in to these NNSA resources, which is sort of that next step of taking something that is being developed and commercialized and looking to how you’re going to export those US technologies abroad.

Tom Temin: And how long has the portal been opened and what has the take up been so far?

Allison Bennett Irion: We’ve just opened the summer, so it’s been fresh since August, we’ve been out doing our roadshow talking to a lot of stakeholders in the US nuclear industry. And generally speaking, right now we have anywhere between 400 and 1,000 people a day that are coming to learn something new on US Nuclear Nexus, so we’re excited to continue to develop material, our next phase will likely include academia. So a lot of those nuclear companies, particularly nuclear startups, work a lot with academia. So just making sure that they’re aware of what their obligations are relative to export control, and then to connect with them on nuclear security safeguards and deliberation resistance in a timely fashion, preferably early in the design process, so that we can avoid historic retrofit to design.

Tom Temin: Sure, that was my question, do you have some sort of a feedback mechanism so that you can make sure that the site answers the questions people actually have, and you can embellish it and improve it as time goes on?

Allison Bennett Irion: Yeah, so we have a contact us feature, so people can use the contact us feature or send an email to nexus@anl.gov. But to Jeff’s point, I mean, the main goal is to say, here’s this information that’s out there, but but NNSA wants to connect directly with industry to work on these these pillars and activity. So as someone puts that request in, we have a process to shepherd those requests to the appropriate offices. So in some cases that may go to one single office to have some sort of an engagement with the US industry stakeholder or to answer a question that they may have. Or they may ask a question that’s topical, and it makes sense to collaborate across multiple program offices at the same time. So we want to try to save people’s time and energy, so they’re not having to figure out where in NNSA do I need to get involved and who do I need to talk to or can I talk to you together in parallel. So that’s, that’s a lot of what Nexus is, to have information out there, yes, but also to be able to connect industry with the right resources at NNSA, which also includes the rich experience of the National Laboratory complex.

Tom Temin: And Jeff, therefore, all the email doesn’t go to you personally.

Jeff Chamberlin: Exactly. And if I if I can add to real fundamental points here to that A, we want to support this industry in succeeding, we want to see this industry succeed. And that means being able to deploy us technologies and reassert the US in the global nuclear power landscape. And B, the second point is that this is an experiment to some extent, and we want to figure out how to best help this industry. So to your question about feedback. We absolutely and every presentation we give and every discussion we have with industry, we welcome their feedback and input to make this a helpful tool for them to better engage with us.

Tom Temin: Jeff Chamberlain is the associate assistant deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jeff Chamberlin: My pleasure, Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: And Allison Bennett Irion is principal systems engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory. Thanks so much.

Allison Bennett Irion: Thank you for having me.

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