Engineers earn national kudos for creating nuclear fuel assembly model

Present a problem to an engineer and that engineer will find a solution with enthusiasm.

That’s what a group of people did recently at Framatome in Richland.

Caleb Sarka, Rianna Preston, Chad King, Destinee Rea, Jeff Waddell and Manuel Seubert all work for Framatome.

And all are members of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear, or NAYGN, chapter at Framatome, the company formerly known as Areva NP until January of this year when it went back to the Framatome name.

Framatome has 14,000 employees worldwide, including 550 at the Horn Rapids Road plant in Richland, making it among the biggest manufacturers in the Tri-Cities.

The group of Framatome engineers had a meeting last August and one of the topics was how better to help students and parents understand what its employees do.

The company manufactures nuclear fuel, provides engineering services, and inspects and maintains operating reactors.

The group from Framatome usually gets about 15 minutes to explain the complicated process to students during tours or classroom visits.

Sometimes, there is nothing but blank stares.

So the Framatome six decided to do something about it.

“We went to a few schools,” said Jeff Waddell, a neutronics engineer. “We didn’t have anything to do hands on. It’s hard in the nuclear industry to show kids hands-on things. So in that August meeting, we tried to figure out what to do to show kids what we do.”

It was a puzzle.

“One common complaint we have when high school students visit the Richland site is that the tour is not hands-on. What better way to solve this problem than letting the kids actually build a fuel assembly themselves?” said Chad King, a thermal-hydraulics engineer and the Richland NAYGN chairman. “This is also a great tool for outreach activities to engage students and let them learn about the manufacturing process.”

Framatome engineer Chad King, left, shows an attendee how the Build a Bundle model works at a recent energy conference in Atlanta. A group of engineers in the North American Young Generation in Nuclear Framatome chapter received the “best chapter in public information” award, recognizing their “outstanding impact to engaging and informing the public.”  (Courtesy Framatome)

The group came up with something called Build a Bundle.

At 15 inches tall, it’s a small replica of the 20-foot tall assemblies in the real plant.

Students can try to manufacture a nuclear fuel assembly and gain a better understanding of nuclear fuel and fuel production.

The main piece of the assembly was created on Caleb Sarka’s 3-D printer.

Pellets, which in this case are made of coffee creamer dyed with cake decorating powder, are created using a hand press. Students then have to inspect the pellets, remove those that don’t meet standards, then insert the good pellets into rods in the correct arrangement.

“The hard part,” Waddell said, “is getting the pellet size right.”

But if it’s all done correctly, the device lights up.

Because of their work, these Richland Framatome workers and their NAYGN chapter were named the “best chapter in public information” at the recent NAYGN national conference in Atlanta.

“It’s the chapter’s first national award,” King said.

NAYGN’s vision and mission is to develop leaders to energize the future of the nuclear industry.

In addition, NAYGN provides opportunities for a young generation of nuclear enthusiasts to develop leadership and professional skills, create lifelong connections, engage and inform the public and inspire today’s nuclear technology professional to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The NAYGN Richland Framatome chapter has 50 to 60 active members, King said. Anyone who works in the nuclear industry can join.

“We meet two to three times a month,” King said. “We also volunteer with school presentations and help with tours here at Framatome.”

“(Being a NAYGN member) provides an opportunity to learn about the nuclear industry,” said Sarka, a mechanical engineer in thermal hydraulics. “I enjoy the opportunity to educate others about the functioning of nuclear power and its benefits.”

Rea, a process engineer in ceramics technical support, agreed. But she also sees it as a chance to draw more women into the industry.

“The Build a Bundle is such a great opportunity to talk about not only how nuclear fuel is made, but also promote careers in manufacturing or careers in STEM,” Rea said. “It’s also really important to me to be able to represent to young girls that there are women working in manufacturing and STEM, and that it’s something they can do in the future with opportunities for them right here in the Tri-Cities.”

Framatome visits schools and hosts high school and college students for tours.

The Build a Bundle model has been a highlight on those visits.

“The nice thing is that they can see that engineering and science is an option (as a career),” Waddell said. “This helps plant seeds. In an ideal world, it would convince people that nuclear power is a great energy source, that nuclear power isn’t scary.”

King said other NAYGN chapters wanted to buy a Build a Bundle from their group.

“But it’s all online,” King said. “We’ve got all of the files on our website. We’re trying to spread it beyond Framatome. I’d like to see it spread across the country. Use it in the schools to demonstrate nuclear power. One of NAYGN’s goals is to spread information about nuclear power.”

It’s also to provide a spark to other ideas.

“I think it’s inspired others to come up with their own (educational) ideas,” King said. “Someone decided to use a 3-D printer to make an entire miniature reactor.”

It’s all about education, Waddell said.

“The award signifies that this is a really interesting and worthwhile project,” Waddell said. “The more people that can understand nuclear energy through public education, the better.”

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