Temitope Taiwo, Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) division director, knows well Argonne’s history as America’s first national laboratory established as an outcome of Enrico Fermi’s successful research and development operation called the “Manhattan Project.” This national security endeavor, launched during World War II in 1942, produced the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, impacting the course of history.
In this, Argonne’s 75th anniversary year, Temitope and his team’s research, continue to advance nuclear science as they shape America’s nuclear energy story.
You began your career as a nuclear reactor analyst, joining Argonne in 1990. Since then you’ve worked on nuclear reactor design, developed research methodologies, and now, serve as Argonne’s NSE division director. What inspired you to study nuclear technology?
You know, I get this question quite a lot. And to some degree, my answer varies, just because so many people have inspired me at various stages of my life. But one I should give credit to is Professor Francis Oluwole, who was the first director of the Center for Energy Research and Development at the University of Ife in Nigeria (now the Obafemi Awolowo University).
After finishing my first year of undergraduate studies, I had the option of studying any science or engineering discipline at the university. My initial inclination was to go into chemical engineering, graduate in four years, and go make a lot of money in the oil industry of the country.
However, my career path changed because of Professor Oluwole. He was setting up the maiden program in engineering physics with nuclear and materials options and was looking for interested students to participate. He encouraged me to join the program, nurtured me, and loaned me two fundamental textbooks in nuclear engineering.
Reading those books greatly inspired and motivated me to learn more. I was introduced to the accomplishments of outstanding scientists in atomic and nuclear science and engineering in the early- to mid-20th century, like Enrico Fermi, Lise Meitner, Marie Curie, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and others.
I am honored to be in the same field as those amazing talents.
Argonne’s 75-year history began in nuclear research with the Manhattan Project. How has the Lab’s nuclear research evolved since that time?
We’ve come a long way since the Manhattan Project. When Argonne was established as the first national laboratory, it had as its mission to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Since then, we’ve designed, built, and operated 28 test and demonstration nuclear reactors at Argonne and in the state of Idaho. In fact, a lot of the current peaceful nuclear technology you see in the world today was developed by scientists and engineers at Argonne.
The Lab’s nuclear expertise spans the entire nuclear spectrum. Our scientists lead the research on advanced nuclear energy systems, develop new materials that tolerate nuclear environments, manage nuclear waste, and advance the nation’s nonproliferation goals. These activities are conducted in not only in the NSE division, but also in a few other divisions in the Energy and Global Security directorate.
Together with other national labs, we also work closely with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to achieve many of its goals, including developing and demonstrating innovative reactor and fuel recycle technologies, minimizing the impact of nuclear waste, and enhancing the assurance of safety and security.
There is a lot of talk about modernization of the electrical grid and how renewable energy, like wind and solar, are playing a larger role in diversifying how we power our homes and businesses. Does nuclear still have a role to play in this mix?
Yes. Across many divisions at Argonne, we have researchers who study the grid. Additionally, some scientists on our team are involved in a project called NuVista. This project leverages two of the Lab’s strengths ‒ nuclear research and energy storage, as scientists study how to combine micro-reactor technology with energy storage to generate electricity in an environmentally clean way.
We know that nuclear technology can be used for good and useful things. But some don’t have good intentions when it comes to use of nuclear technology. Can you talk about what role Argonne plays in the safety and security of nuclear materials?
Starting in the late 1970s, the Lab’s nuclear scientists began traveling around the world to convert research and test reactors so their fuels could not be diverted for use in nuclear weapons. The conversions made to the reactors by our scientists are now the global standard. Our Reactor Conversion Program, under the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration, has succeeded in threat reduction at over 100 facilities around the world. Argonne continues to be a leader among the 10 U.S. national laboratories that are working to complete the program scope by 2035.
This is one of Argonne’s longest and most successful programs. The world is a safer place because of the work on this project.
Collaborations are the way science is done nowadays. Can you describe how Argonne’s scientists and engineers collaborate with companies working in the nuclear industry?
Our goal is to help the customer and commercialize our technology and designs. We strive to promote U.S. leadership of nuclear energy. The best way to achieve this goal is put our innovations in the hands of industry.
We do this in various ways every year, under several types of programs that encourage companies to partner with Argonne and other national laboratories.
Two such programs are mentioned here. The first is the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program, which gives companies access to the facilities and expertise at Argonne and other labs at no cost. The Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF) program is a similar program, but sponsors research beyond nuclear energy. Both programs are for DOE.
In addition, direct collaborations are ongoing with companies in the nuclear industry each year. These companies include TerraPower, Westinghouse, General Electric, X-energy, BWXT, Framatome, General Atomics, Oklo Inc, Kairos Power, Advanced Reactor Concepts, and others. We are committed to using our capabilities and expertise to benefit the nation’s nuclear community and the public to deliver firm, clean energy for now and the future.
What does the future of nuclear energy look like?
I believe the future of nuclear energy is bright because at Argonne, we are privileged to have the next generation of Enrico Fermis, Lise Meitners, Marie Curies, and J. Robert Oppenheimers who are capable of innovating advanced nuclear energy systems.
In support of DOE, we collaborate with other national labs, industry, and universities in the design, development, and deployment of advanced reactor systems. We engage industry teams in the technology development of micro-reactors for both civil and military uses. We continue our development of advanced modeling and simulation tools for high-fidelity reactor analysis. I also envisage the utilization of nuclear systems for space exploration, propulsion, and powering distant worlds. So, there is much to look forward to, as the nuclear future is bright.