A Nuclear Balance: UC Berkeley’s MEng program and full-time work

by Joshua McCumber

In the 1930’s, Australian physicist Mark Oliphant used a particle accelerator to fire heavy hydrogen nuclei at various objects, and he, with others, discovered the nuclei of helium-3 and tritium. Oliphant found that the combinations of hydrogen nuclei and helium-3 nuclei could release tremendous energy.

Research of nuclear fusion had taken a giant step forward. Nuclear fusion, a reaction in which nuclei are combined, is not nuclear fission, a process in which nuclei are split into smaller parts. Nuclear fission reactors are the most common nuclear reactors, and nuclear fission underlies most of the nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear fusion is the safer nuclear technology but, to date, less commercially viable. Since the 1930s, nuclear fusion has promised to be the energy source of the future. In the 1960s, the elusive technology was thought to be only 15 years away. But by 1980, this estimate had slipped to 20 years. By 2000, it was 35 years away. However, these projections may be misleading as they are not representative of the pace of progress in nuclear fusion over that period. Development of nuclear fusion technologies has been faster than Moore’s law in terms of nuclear fusion device performance.

Thanks to the breakthroughs in a variety of other fields, such as Physics, Materials Science, and Computing, there is now a bevy of nuclear fusion reactor concepts and designs. But the reality of this carbon-free, safer, less proliferation-prone alternative is still elusive.

How I discovered nuclear engineering

I entered the nuclear industry in 2008 upon my enlistment in the United States Navy. Nuclear was a new field for me — and as I look back, the reactor physics concepts and radiation transport equations that consumed sleepless nights now seem simple and trivial as I compare them to my current nuclear challenges. The United States Navy nuclear engineering program is the best nuclear training program in the world and it propelled me into my current field of study. The Navy and studying under the vision and dedication of Admiral H.G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, ignited my passion for nuclear engineering.

Vallecitos Nuclear Center was the site of the first privately owned electricity generating nuclear reactor. The site is comprised of the Vallecitos Boiling Water Reactor (VBWR), Empire State Atomic Development Agency Vallecitos Experimental Superheat Reactor (EVESR), General Electric Test Reactor (GETR) and the GE-Hitachi nuclear test reactor (NTR).

After 8 years (including 6 years of submarine duty), I left the Navy and took a job as the Lead Nuclear Research & Development Test Engineer for the General Electric — Hitachi, Vallecitos Nuclear Center in Sunol, California. While working there in 2017, I finished my Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering and immediately applied to several local universities for graduate school. I was overjoyed when I was accepted to the Master of Engineering, Nuclear Engineering program at the University of California, Berkeley Coleman Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership. Although I knew that it would be challenging, I made the decision to continue working full-time while attending graduate school, which, as many who have done it know, is a daunting task.

Entering the Master of Engineering program at UC Berkeley

According to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, a quarter of college students are both full-time workers and full-time students (Strahota, 2015). That same study states that 76% of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week. The nuclear industry is a competitive field. With the decline of the nuclear power industry, many qualified professionals with advanced degrees and years of experience are re-entering the job market. Passion for research and the need to learn manifested itself in my choice to work full-time, gaining experience in addition to pursuing a graduate education. This was, in my opinion, the best use of my time.

My typical schedule during graduate school was usually to work at GE from 4am-1pm, attend classes and work with classmates from 2pm-9pm, and sleep from 10pm-3am. The above included two hours of commute time between my apartment in Fremont, the GE reactor site in Sunol, and the Berkeley campus. Weekends were consumed with research and Capstone project work.

A primary concern that many graduate students experience is the stress associated with higher learning. Stress is not caused by “higher learning” itself, but by deadlines, excessive assignments, grade anxiety, dealing with research setbacks, etc. Working full-time and going to graduate school would be less stressful if your full-time job were relatively mindless — say flipping burgers. Yes, running a nuclear research reactor with operational challenges and customer job deadlines while pursuing a nuclear engineering degree is more intellectually consistent than being a brain surgeon while pursuing international economics degree, but I recommend flipping burgers if your interest is to minimize stress. The stress of full-time employment coupled with full-time graduate school was difficult to manage — but it was somewhat easier since the work and the study were related. I recommend this approach for those who wish to pursue graduate school while working: find work/school connections to reduce the stress. Transitioning from commercial nuclear research by day to academic nuclear research at night gave me the opportunity to perform work and research in parallel. I could apply my work experiences at school and vice versa, and in many instances, I could relate my professional experiences to lessons being taught in class. I could leverage ideas from experts at the university to solve problems that arose at work.

Joshua’s team and advisors accepting an award from UC Berkeley’s Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership.

I learned many things from my studies at Berkeley. I confess that I did not realize some non-technical things were crucially important to enable me to become a better nuclear engineer. Many of them were just as valuable as the reactor physics and neutronics lessons. I learned to rely on my research partners. Yes, both the Navy and General Electric promote teamwork, but teams often included the less motivated and the less ambitious.

At Berkeley, the intellect and curiosity of fellow students were the best I have ever experienced.

For my Capstone project, I was fortunate to have many smart and able colleagues. Often, I was unavailable due to work for a professor’s office hours. I learned to rely on my colleagues to convey my questions to professors and share the knowledge that they gained from the smaller group meetings I could not attend. Each of us brought our own expertise to the Capstone project, which resulted in a robust team that could focus on individual strength areas while assisting each other to address individual weaknesses. This diversity of educational backgrounds strengthened my own abilities and translated well to my current employment at Phoenix Labs, where there are so many experts in a variety of fields.

Sitting in the San Francisco Bay Area traffic, I would often reflect how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to experience both the graduate academics and commercial applications in my field. Through the combination of work and school, I gained invaluable knowledge and experience that have shaped me.

The UC Berkeley High Flux Neutron Generator (HFNG).

Capstone project learnings

My team’s Capstone project “High Flux Neutron Generator for Medical Isotope Production” focused on the use of High Flux Neutron Generators (HFNGs) to create novel, short-lived, and procedure customizable medical radioisotopes to address the need for an alternative to fission reactor-based production. The current fission reactor-based means of isotope production suffers from material inflexibility and long delivery times as well as effects from shutdowns on the aging fleet of fission reactors, causing shortages in medical radioisotope supplies. Prior to my Capstone project, I had not extensively studied DD-DT fusion systems but I came to truly appreciate nuclear fusion and its implications to a variety of fields. The engineering leadership skills and hands-on experience in a higher level research I obtained while in the MEng program qualified me for a research position at Phoenix, LLC.

My Capstone project afforded me the opportunity to expand my knowledge base considerably.

Whether it was working on Monte Carlo N-Particle transport simulations or looking at heat dispersion in COMSOL modeling of various components, I learned how to work smarter and use advanced tools to aid in my research. For the first time in my career, I was immersed in radiochemistry and radiopharmaceuticals and the medical physics involved in theranostic treatments of cancer, generation of deuterium and tritium plasmas, fusion of hydrogen isotopes, and neutronic transport and interactions.

My next chapter: Phoenix LLC

I am currently a Neutron Radiographic Project Manager at Phoenix, LLC (formally Phoenix Nuclear Laboratories) based in Monona, Wisconsin. I am responsible for the technology development and design of the state-of-the-art, Phoenix Neutron Imaging Center (PNIC), which when completed in 2019, will become the world’s first commercial neutronics imaging facility without a fission-based nuclear reactor. I attribute my success to the knowledge and experiences gained through my time at UC Berkeley’s MEng program. As a project manager, I am responsible not only for technology development but logistics, licensing, regulatory affairs and many other duties not usually assigned to the engineer.

Phoenix’s vision will be realized, thanks to skills that were enhanced by my time in the MEng program.

Phoenix is a startup company founded in 2005. It has ventured down the long road of research, design and manufacturing of accelerator-based nuclear fusion neutron generators. Phoenix’s solution utilizes a microwave ion source and a gaseous deuterium, tritium, or mixed species target, which allows for a significantly increased neutron yield, as well as longer target and source lifetimes of up to several years. Positively charged deuterium ions are extracted from the source and accelerated to 300 kV by a direct-inject accelerator. The beam is then focused by a magnetic solenoid and transported down a beamline until it impinges upon a target of deuterium and/or tritium, where nuclear fusion occurs, and neutrons are produced.

Phoenix neutron generator.

Phoenix’s technology has advanced through several generations of products and designs over the last decade. However, it has only been within the last few years that Phoenix has evolved from a custom research and development shop into an industry-leading manufacturer of state-of-the-art particle acceleration and neutron generation systems. Presented at this year’s World Conference on Neutron Radiography (WCNR) hosted by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Office (ANSTO), the PNIC facility generated much interest around the neutronics imaging community.

The future of nuclear

We hope to commercialize our technology on a large scale, but also provide a means of neutron generation capabilities in the face of a declining nuclear reactor sector, which will allow us to pursue R&D projects in the various fields of neutronics testing. The strategic direction of Phoenix is to continue nuclear fusion research that will lead to a viable nuclear fusion power reactor and fund that research with fusion related income streams, such as the manufacture of particle acceleration and neutron generation systems, and neutron radiography. Currently, aside from the PNIC project, Phoenix is involved in various applications of accelerator-based neutron generation technologies and building custom solutions to solve problems in a variety of industries including aerospace, defense, medical, semiconductor, automotive and geological.

The nuclear future is fusion.

Materials concerns, such as the survivability of materials in something as hot as the sun, will keep fusion on the drawing board for some time. Indeed, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), perhaps the current pinnacle of power producing nuclear fusion technology, will not commence its initial plasma testing until 2025. Demonstration Power Station (DEMO), a planned successor of the ITER experiment, may be available to make fusion energy possible by 2030. Economically viable energy production via nuclear fusion will be achieved in the next couple of decades, followed by the commercialization of the technology which will make clean energy the norm.

Fusing atoms together in a controlled way releases nearly four million times more energy than a chemical reaction such as the burning of fossil fuels like coal or natural gas, and four times as much as nuclear fission reactions (at equal mass). Fusion has the potential to provide the kind of baseload energy needed to provide electricity to our cities and our industries, with the added benefit of being carbon-free, sustainable, and free of long-lived radioactive waste.

Joshua with one of the current Phoenix builds.

I am still a student, balancing work with my part-time MBA and part-time Masters in Explosives Engineering while applying to DEng and PhD programs. I do not know if there is any secret formula for successfully balancing work and school while attending graduate school. Success is largely dependent on the individual and their priorities. As for me, I highly recommend the MEng program at the University of California, Berkeley Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership. For those who wish to pursue concurrent full-time work and full-time graduate school, I suggest the following: Look at the bigger picture. See yourself in five years. Understand that the stress and sacrifices you will make today will place you into that picture of the future. There is short-term pain for long-term gain. Do not forget about yourself. Learn how to juggle the workload and retain your sanity.

Pursue your passions and do not be afraid to go for it.

Joshua McCumber is a nuclear engineer with over 10 years of engineering experience in nuclear power plants, electrical power generation/storage/distribution systems, propulsion systems, accelerators and research and test reactors. Connect with Joshua.

References: H. Strahota (October 28, 2015) Seventy Percent of College Students Work While Enrolled, New Georgetown University Research Finds, Georgetown University, McCourt School pf Public Policy, retrieved October 1, 2016 from https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/.../Press-release-WorkingLearners__FINAL.pdf