The Manhattan Project

Julie Ezold's Interview

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Julie Ezold's Interview

Julie Ezold is a nuclear engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She directs a project in the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center that uses the High Flux Isotope Reactor to create californium-252. In this interview, Ezold describes the project and how the Reactor is used to create californium-252 and other elements. She explains the importance of sustained research into element and isotope production in the future, and also provides insight into the practical application of this work. Ezold also explains how she became interested in science as a teenager, and what it is like to be a woman scientist working on nuclear issues.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 25th, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Wednesday, April 25th, 2018. I have with me Julie Ezold. My first question is to have Julie tell us her name and spell it.

Julie Ezold: Julie Ezold, E-z-o-l-d.

Kelly: Great. Thank you, Julie. All right. First, we want to learn something about you—where you’re from, and something about your childhood or what got you started in wanting to become a scientist.

Ezold: I grew up in upstate New York, a small town called Ballston Lake. We had three acres of land, so we were pretty rural. At that time, the State of New York and State of California were having a public education war, so the students won. I had a really great opportunity, had some very good teachers.

My sixth grade science teacher was the one who really got me interested in science. I can still remember his lessons. I was also good in math. They started segregating you in sixth grade, so that you could be accelerated math, so that you would be taking the advanced placement classes by your senior year. I was already on that track by the time I was eleven.

I had an older sister. I had two younger brothers. My dad was very adamant about, “You will all get a good college education. You will have employment.” There was no, “This is a girl thing, this is a boy thing.” There was, “You will do, period.” That made it pretty easy that way. 

The summer before your senior year, you get bombarded with where to go for college. I got this opportunity to do a summer one-week camp in Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and you could pick a topic. One topic was nuclear chemistry. I was going to do advanced placement chemistry anyway, so this sounded like a good opportunity. My parents agreed to pack up the camper, and we drove thirteen hours south from upstate New York to southwestern Virginia.

I spent a week. We were the only class that had lab work. We got to not only learn about radioactivity, nuclear chemistry, radiochemistry, we also got to do the labs that went with it. Soon as my dad picked me up from that camp, I was like, “I’m going to be a nuclear engineer.” And, he’s like, “Okay, kid.”

At that time, there were only thirteen accredited programs in the nation. It very much limited where I was going to go to school. That meant I was going to his alma mater, I was going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It was the closest one to where we lived. The next one would have been Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But unfortunately with four kids, and my dad being a state worker, a four-year private education was not quite going to be in the works. They had a community college down the road. I went two years for my community college, same course work, and could directly transfer into Rensselaer my junior year. My degree still says Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

At that point you have to decide, “Is it graduate school or is it work?” I had two job offers and I had two graduate school offers, and I really wanted to continue. I went to North Carolina State, and did my research there.

Then I had the opportunity as a Department of Energy fellow to actually come here to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and use the High Flux Isotope Reactor for my research, back doing radiochemistry. Twenty-six years later, I’m still working next to the High Flux Isotope Reactor, doing radiochemistry.

Kelly: We want to pick up twenty-six years later. You’re still here.

Ezold: I am still here. 

Kelly:  That’s great. Tell us about your work.

Ezold: My current position, or any of them?

 Kelly: More generally, you might want to talk about what you started working on, how this has evolved in the twenty-six years you’ve been here.

Ezold: I started in radioactive waste management. Did environmental restoration, did criticality safety and enriched uranium operations at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Then came back to Oak Ridge National Lab, did oversight assessments, where I got to see a broad view of how the National Lab works. Then got placed where I am today at the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center, and I’ve been there for fourteen years. 

Kelly:  Tell us about what you’ve been doing your last fourteen years then. We’ll focus here.

Ezold: I’m responsible for the californium-252 program. Californium-252 is a unique isotope. It’s a man-made isotope. It can only be made in measurable quantities in two places in the world. It’s either here at Oak Ridge National Laboratory or in Dimitrovgrad, Russia. What makes it unique is that when it decays, it has a two-and-a-half-year half-life.

When it radioactive-decays it spontaneous fissions 3% of the time and gives off neutrons. It’s a portable neutron source. It doesn’t need any electronics, it’s always going to work. That neutron source can be used to start up new nuclear power plants or ones that have been shut down for a significant amount of time. It’s also used for the uranium fuel rods that go into those nuclear power plants. It can do radiography to look for uniformity of the uranium-235 in the rods.

More importantly, it’s used in analyzers: coal, cement, and mineral analyzers. They’ll use two small neutron sources on either side of the conveyor belt. Literally, as the material is either coming out of the ground or being processed, they know the impurities of what’s in that material, so they can make the processing decisions online.

In order to make the californium-252, we have to start with elements before that. In your chemistry book, there is a periodic table, and the very bottom row of your periodic table is what’s called the actinide series. They’re special, they’re all by themselves. It starts with uranium, and goes onward. Curium is element number 96, berkelium is element is element 97, californium is element 98. Those are your elements, and the numbers mean the number of protons. 

Isotopes are the same element, but have different numbers of neutrons. They’re still an element. Californium has isotopes of 249, 250, 251, and then the one I would make is 252. It just means there’s more neutrons inside that nucleus. The element stays the same, but the properties of the isotope are very different. With isotope californium-252, with all those extra neutrons, when it decides it’s going to decay, it’s got too much energy, it says, “You know what? I need to split, literally.” Three percent of the time, it splits apart and gives off some of those neutrons.

Those neutrons then can be used for these other applications. We can use neutrons to interrogate material, just like X-rays. They can use the neutrons, go in and see an image, if you want to think of it that way. Or, these neutrons can activate—make excited—any of those impurities for the analyzers. When those impurities get excited, they have to give off energy, and most of the time their energy comes off in the form of gamma rays, again, like X-rays. Those gamma rays come off at a certain energy. The detectors know that energy. They can tell the engineers or scientists, “Oh, based on that energy, I know it’s this type of impurity.” That tells the operators then what to do.

Going back to how we make it, we have to start with the curium isotopes, which were, again, man-made. Everything’s man-made past uranium. We then have to do this in remote hot cells. Our hot-cell facilities are 54-inch-thick, high-density concrete with leaded glass, and we use these really cool robotic arms. They’re called manipulators, but just think like the claw. That’s what we use to do all the work behind those windows. We press pallets that are about this big, we load them into a tube, we seal it up with welding.

Then we send it over to the High Flux Isotope Reactor. It’s that high flux meaning, lots of neutrons. If you can imagine this number, 2.5 times 1015 neutrons per centimeter squared per second. A lot of neutrons in a very small area, and in one second. We need that in order to push the curium isotopes to make the californium. We have to leave them in the reactor for four cycles, which is about four months. It takes that long. I’m not going to figure out how many hours to seconds that is, and how many neutrons. It’s a lot. 

That’s why it can only be made in two places in the world. You have to have the starting material, and you have to have that extreme high flux reactor. There’s only two of them in the world that can do that.

Once we irradiate those targets for that length of time, we bring them back to the hot-cell facilities, and now we get to do the fun stuff. All that chemistry you got to do in high school, we do it even more exciting, because we’re doing it, again, in those hot cells and we can actually separate elements through chemistry. You can’t separate the isotopes, but we can separate the different elements from each other and get just the ones we want.

Kelly: That happens in the Radiochemical Engineering—

Ezold: Development Center. 

Kelly:  Development Center. How does that work?

Ezold: That facility just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary two years ago. It went operational in 1966. Last year, it was recognized by the American Nuclear Society as a historical landmark. We’ll be celebrating that next month.

 To me, it’s fascinating that you have a facility that’s fifty-plus years old. It was designed and build with no calculators, no computers—slide rules. When I take students, especially through tours, I tell them, “You need to go look up what a slide rule is to understand how to do the calculations that built this facility that we still use today to do world-class research, to make isotopes like californium-252 and the plutonium-238 for NASA’s deep space missions.” To me, that’s a fascinating part of our facility.

But it’s still operational. It was built very well, it was designed very well. We have amazing staff who can operate it and maintain it, and incredible engineers and scientists who know how to use that facility.

Kelly: I’m familiar with the calutrons, and they were operating until 1998, the Beta-3 calutron, to produce 200 different kinds of isotopes. How does that differ from what’s going on today? 

Ezold: They would have had multiple isotopes of the same element, and they would have separated isotopes. That was a technology that was used to separate isotopes, because again, isotopes has the same number of protons, it just differs by the number of neutrons. Chemically, it’s the same.

What we do in the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center is, we can separate elements by chemistry. We cannot separate isotopes. Ours is very different from the calutron and the capabilities. 

When we bring our material back, we’re separating the curium that we started with, because we don’t use it all up. On the way to making californium, we’re going to make berkelium—we’ll talk about the berkelium-249 and how it was used for discovery of a new element—and then we make the californium. 

It keeps going. We can actually make einsteinium. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we even went further. We went to fermium, we went to element 100. We would separate the elements and the isotopes that were generated from those reactions, but not separate isotopes themselves. 

Kelly: Shall we go back to the 249?

 Ezold: The berkelium?

Kelly: Yes. Tell us about that.

Ezold: Since it’s a different element, it has 97 protons versus the 98 of californium-252. We can elementally separate it, again, in the hot cells.

Berkelium is unique, because when it radioactive decays, it gives off 99.99% of the time beta particles. The way to think of a beta particle is a very fast electron. Very tiny, very fast, not as energetic as a gamma ray, but still an energy level. The researchers didn’t worry about that. They wanted it because it was 97. They were looking for element 117, and they were going to use a beam of calcium ions, and calcium is element 20. To get to 117, you need 97 plus 20, and that’s how they were doing it.

Again, only two places in the world that can do it. They knew we were getting ready to do a californium-252 production run. They knew we made berkelium along the way, we can separate it. When we did that, we separated out roughly about 22 milligrams of the berkelium-249 in the hot cell. We were able to purify it to just half of a microgram of californium. We took it up to our glovebox labs. Instead of having to use mechanical arms, your glovebox labs now don’t have as much shielding because you don’t need it, from a radioactive point of view. You actually put your hands into these big gloves, so you have more dexterity to do the work.

They ultra-purified it. We got it below detectable limits for californium. So, a very pure product went to Dimitrovgrad, Russia, where they took that material and made the target wheels. If you could just think of a spinning wheel, with these little foils on it, they painted the berkelium material onto those foils. That wheel was then sent to Dubna, to the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research, and that’s where the accelerator was that had the calcium-48 ions. They accelerated those ions. Then you had that target wheel spinning, and the ions just kept hitting it and hitting it and hitting it for 150 days. They used about three grams of calcium to do this. I thought about doing this last night to try to figure out how many atoms it was, but it really got hard. It’s like 1020, it’s a lot of atoms.

It took them 150 days, and of that, only six atoms of element 117 were detected. When you’re talking about 1020 atoms total and only six became the new element, it’s fascinating. The way they could determine they had a discovery was, they had a detector system. Knowing that these new elements have very short half-lives, on the order of microseconds, they decay into known elements. That’s what you’re looking for, for it to decay into something you’ve already seen before, by the energy that it gives off. That was how they came up with the six.

Kelly: It’s astounding.

Ezold: Then we had to do it again two more years later.

Kelly: Oh, my, it’s amazing. You were telling me, this is then used in outer-space exploration?

Ezold: No. The new element really has no application at this time. Most of those new elements don’t, because they’re such short-lived. Even the ones that have a few seconds still are short-lived.

The thing to remember was, back in the late 1940s, early 1950s, when Glen Seaborg was discovering new elements, they discovered americium. The first isotopes of americium were very short-lived, and they didn’t know what to do with them. 

But do you have a smoke detector in your house? Yes. If you open up your smoke-detector, if it’s an older style, you’ll see a silver disc in there. It will have the stamping on it “AM-241,” and the radioactive trefoil. It uses americium-241, a unique isotope of the americium, that gives off alpha particles. The way your smoke detector works is that americium is always giving off these little alpha particles that can’t travel very far, can’t even travel through your skin. The detector is so close that it’s always seeing them. As long as the detector can always see those alpha particles, it says, “The air is clear. It’s all good.”

But as soon as smoke gets in the way, the alpha particles can’t go through it, and that’s why it alarms. That’s also why it alarms when it’s in your bathroom, and the steam comes out. The alpha particles can’t get through the water molecules. That’s why you’re always there fanning it. That’s why, is to clear the air, so that the detector can see the alpha particles from the americium source.

We don’t know where this can go in the future. If we can make these new elements, isotopes of these new elements, that would last longer, we don’t know what they could do. That’s the exciting part.

Kelly:  Wow. Your work involves probably a whole team of people, some of whom work on the production side, trying to create these elements, and others are working on application sides?

Ezold: Predominantly here, we’re going to be just making the isotopes and the elements. Applications for californium-252, that’s an industrial isotope, so industry is going to do that, for the most part. Now, researchers may use very small californium sources to do research, because they want those neutrons, and they want them of a certain energy that the californium-252 will decay with. They’ll use them with research.

As I said, then the new elements, we’re still trying to make berkelium targets, einsteinium targets. The goal now is to push beyond element 117 and 118. They’re pushing on now for 119, 120. The real key is element 121, whether it will be a transitional metal or if it will be a whole new series below actinides. The chemists, that’s what they’re really curious about. The physicists just want to keep jamming things together, and see what happens. The chemists and the physicists have very different views on this.

Kelly: Isn’t that interesting. The chemists, what is their goal?

Ezold: They are looking to see the chemical properties, to see if the periodic table is correct. We almost take the periodic table for granted. But as you get into these higher elements, you have effects—the relativistic effects, the quantum effects—that [Albert] Einstein predicted. We don’t know how that affects the chemistry. As you’re trying to put more of these electrons together in those odder shells, and cram more neutrons and protons together in the nucleus, we don’t know what’s really going on there. That’s kind of a combination of chemistry and physics, of what’s going on.

The chemists’ point of view is, “What happens next? Is it a transitional metal, the bulk of the middle of the table? Or do we get a whole new series, something completely new?” When you think about it, Seaborg came up with the actinide series, again, it was only in the 1950s. It wasn’t really that long ago. The fact that we could be on the cusp of doing that again within sixty-five years, it’s pretty cool. 

Kelly:  It is cool. Now, you were saying some of these have a very, very short lifespan, of seconds, even.

Ezold: Microseconds or less.

Kelly:  Microseconds. Well, I guess the new element, tennessium?

Ezold: Tennessine? 

Kelly:  Yes, yes, tell us about that.

Ezold: That one falls in the same column of the periodic table as fluorine, chlorine, iodine, astatine. That’s why it had to end in the “i-n-e,” that’s why it can’t be the “i-u-m,” that we all wanted it to be. It has to be tennessine.

In theory, by the periodic table, it should have similar characteristics. If we could create one that would be more stable than a few microseconds, that we could actually do some chemistry on, we could tell does it fit in that line. But that’s what it should do.

Kelly: How do you go about making an isotope behave and stay around?

Ezold: Be more stable? 

Kelly: Yeah, to be more stable.

Ezold: It needs more neutrons. If you were still going to do berkelium and calcium, those two combinations, one of them would have to have more neutrons in it. That’s not going to really work. The thing would be to look at a different beam and a different target, and see if you could push more neutrons through those isotopes. It’s a challenge, because you want to find the ones that are going to reactive together. That’s the challenge that they’re having right now is, trying to come up with that combination of the ion beam which is coming at it, and the target that’s being hit.

We’re into physics now, and that’s beyond my capability. I understand the basics, and that’s about it. That’s what they’re trying to figure out, those correct combinations, so that we can make things last longer.

That was another one of Glenn Seaborg’s theories, was this idea of an island of stability. That once you got past uranium, then you were doing these man-made, and they were all pretty much unstable. But he believed there was some magic combination of neutrons and protons. If you could find that, then those elements, those isotopes, would be stable. That’s what we’re shooting for, that island.

Kelly:  His theory, has it been proven in part?

Ezold: That’s what they’re working on today. You have element 118. It was discovered and accepted at the same time as 113, 115, 117 and 118, they were all accepted in the same timeframe.

118, we’re working with the Russians to supply an isotope called californium-251, and they’re trying to put that in their beam with the calcium. They did the original experiment with californium-249. Californium-251 has two more neutrons. The idea is, if you could take that, and compare whatever new element 118 isotopes come out of that experiment, that half-life should be longer than the first set of isotopes when they used the californium-249 target. That’s the current experiment that’s being worked today. We’ll see.

Kelly:  Oh my. Goodness. Another note here that you’re working on reestablishing DOE’s [Department of Energy] capability to produce 238 for space missions, 238 plutonium.

Ezold: That’s the plutonium-238 program, right. The domestic supply stopped in about the late 1990s. Then the United States was getting its plutonium-238 from the Russians, and they in turn have stopped supplying. In order to continue with the deep space missions, somebody needs to make the plutonium-238. It’s a combination of the laboratories. It’s Idaho National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Right now, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is making the targets using the isotope neptunium-237. Luckily, neptunium to plutonium is only one jump. It’s a little bit easier to do. But they make those targets. They put them in the High Flux Isotope Reactor, irradiate them for about two cycles, bring them back, and then separate the neptunium from the plutonium. Then the plutonium is converted to an oxide, and that oxide is then in turn shipped to Los Alamos, where they will then make it into these kind of like nuggets, is the best way I can explain it. Then it goes to Idaho and Idaho will actually make the RTGs, which are the radio-thermal generators, something like that.

That’s the power source, and that’s the power source that was used on Voyager, the Curiosity Rover. Anything that’s in our near orbit, or up to about Mars, they can usually use the solar panels to get enough power to do the instrumentation. But once you go beyond that, you just can’t get enough energy from the solar, so you need this plutonium-238 source. When it decays, it gives off heat, and they can then convert the heat to electrical power. That’s what powers the instrumentations.

Kelly: NASA and now private concerns are launching space probes and the like, and are talking about it. How many years would the plutonium-238 be able to keep generating the heat for electricity?  

Ezold: I believe its half-life is on the order of 88 years. I’d have to double-check that for sure, because that’s outside my program. You figure every 88 years, half of the material decays away. Voyager’s been out there thirty, forty years. It’s not even at half-life yet, and it’s still going. It went beyond our solar system a couple of years ago and it’s still going, so it’s pretty impressive. So at least a half-life, if not more. But, again, we don’t know, because Voyager’s our oldest one and it’s only been out for about forty or fifty years.

Kelly:  That’s wonderful. There’s another note here, that all of these things are helping research on medical devices and prosthesis, using gamma radiation to sterilize and improve the wear characteristics of polyethylene.

Ezold: We’re getting into gammas, that’s not really my area. My area’s going to be more isotope production.

There are medical isotopes that my organization are responsible for, such as the actinium-225, which is a decay product from thorium-229. That’s being used as a palliative treatment with prostate cancer. The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] has approved that one. We also do some other medical isotope work with lutetium and tungsten. I’m trying to think of a couple of the others. There’s other work that Oak Ridge National Lab is doing with developing isotopes.

A couple of them are what we call targeted alpha therapy. The isotopes, when they go through their half-life, emit those alpha particles, like the americium. Alpha particle is just like a helium nucleus—two neutrons and two protons. Relatively speaking, we think it’s a big thing, and it packs a wallop. It has a lot of energy in it.

The idea is, if you could attach the isotope to a protein or an enzyme that would go to the cancer tumor—go through and attach itself—it would literally just start bombing that tumor from the outside and work its way in, with minimal damage to anything around it. I equate it to a smart bomb. It’s directly going to that tumor, and it’s attacking the tumor and making it smaller and smaller. 

The initial results from the trials are absolutely amazing. One to two treatments, and the tumors are eradicated. That area of opportunity is boundless. I’m really hoping to see leaps and bounds in that area.

Kelly: Wow. I would say so. What you’re describing is one particular isotope?

Ezold: That particular one was actinium-225, but there are other alpha-emitting isotopes that are being looked at and researched for that same type of application. It’s a therapy called targeted alpha therapy. The Europeans are doing a lot of research on it as well, but you need the isotopes in order to do the research.

Kelly: I’ve heard of the use of—I guess they call them “seeds,” for prostrate cancer.

Ezold: That’s a little different, because that’s actually putting something in you, as opposed to—this is attaching. As I say, I don’t remember if it’s an enzyme or a protein—biology was not my strong suit either. But it would go right to the tumor. As opposed to trying to implant something that you might have to take out, the isotope will decay, decay, decay, and these are relatively short-lived type of half-lives. Once it’s worn itself out, your body eliminates it.

Kelly:  Marvelous. Obviously, it takes a multidisciplinary effort to translate these into treatment of medical issues such as cancer. Do people who have your expertise producing these things, so there’s got to be a lot of conversation, or at least—

 Ezold: Collaboration.

Kelly:  —Openness between, you know, the laboratory and these other potential users.

Ezold: They’re working on that. Right now, our focus is ensuring we have a supply of those isotopes. Those collaborations are being worked with the entities that would do those actual research, whether it’s trials, or animal. Those are not physically done here at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but with other institutions.

Kelly:  People that you work with mostly are people like yourself? You would describe yourself as what? Biochemist, chemical?

Ezold: I’m actually a nuclear engineer by training.

Kelly:  A nuclear engineer by training.

Ezold: Our staff at the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center is broad. We have chemists, radiochemists, chemical engineers, material engineers, mechanical engineers, organic chemists. You name it, we have it up there. You have to have that multidisciplinary workforce to do everything that is done up there.

Our operation staff, as I said, they’re fabulous to work those facilities and keep them running, to run those manipulators and do all the things we need done. A lot of them are, again, more mechanical-based backgrounds. A lot of folks who had been in the nuclear Navy program come and work here. Then just the craft that they need to keep those manipulators running or any of our other systems running. When they call them “craft,” they are craftsmen, they really and truly are, to keep those facilities running. It’s a very diverse group and it’s a lot fun. It’s a family atmosphere up there.

Kelly:  You were saying that working with people with diverse expertise, is a lot of fun.

Ezold: Yes. Folks have come from all over as well. We have East Coast, West Coast, North, South, international. We have a lot of diversity. We’re very different up there and we like it.

Kelly:  That’s great. Most of these people just come for two years and stay for twenty?

Ezold: Yes. It seems to be. I did the same thing. I’ve never stayed in any of my past positions for more than three years, and I’ve been there fourteen, so, yes.

Kelly:  That’s great. What else should I be asking you? What can you tell us about the future?

Ezold: We keep hoping we’ll keep going. I hope that we will do more in that targeted alpha therapy, and coming up with isotopes that could be used for that. Hoping that we can make significant quantities of the einsteinium, so that we can push the new super-heavy element discovery. That’s the one that’s going to be very difficult. 

This last time that we made it, we only made one and a half micrograms, and they need milligram quantities. Order of a thousand-fold more. I don’t know how to do that. I’ve got a really smart researcher, she’s working on that. We’ve got to figure that out, to kind of push that envelope. We need to figure out a way of, “How can we make these isotopes, that are so unique and so difficult to make, but make them in more quantities, so that they can be used for research? That’s a challenge.

Just coming up with new techniques. If we could figure out a way to chemically separate isotopes, that would be outstanding. I think that would be tops. I’m not sure that’s going to happen either. If the physicists could come up with a way to either lengthen short half-lives, or shorten ones that we don’t like, that would be great, too. If we could force the laws of physics to change a little bit, I’d like that.

 I think overall, it’s just the fact that Oak Ridge National Lab did start out as a Manhattan Project. Almost initially, you had a discovery of promethium, element 61. It was a blank spot on the periodic table for a really long time. In 1945, it was isolated here at Oak Ridge National Lab. That was the first element that we were recognized for the discovery of.

Then you had Glenn Seaborg’s vision, to produce trans-plutonium elements in measurable quantities that led to the High Flux Isotope Reactor in the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center. Then today, we’re looking at possibly proving another one of his theories, all in this 75-year span. To be part of that is just an honor.

I mean, there’s other industrial isotopes that we produce. Again, the High Flux Isotope Reactor is a very unique instrument. Best as we can tell, it’s one of a kind. The Russians have a very similar reactor, but not the capacity that the High Flux Isotope Reactor has. With that immense amount of neutrons in that small area—they call it the flux—you can do so many amazing things. Not just the isotope production, but it can be used to mimic fusion. It can be used to mimic—for the extension of the nuclear power plants—the embrittlement of what they will see, just because of that hitting of the neutrons over and over and over again.

That’s one of the areas we’re looking at for welding. These nuclear plants that are trying to extend their life beyond forty years to sixty years to eighty years, they know they’ll have embrittlement issues on their pressure vessels. They know that traditional welding is not going to work if they need to go in and do any repairs.

One of the things that the EPRI [Electric Power Research Institute]—I can’t remember what EPRI stands for, but it’s a commercial research entity—teamed with Oak Ridge National Lab and we could take stainless steel coupons that are similar to the stainless steel that’s used in the pressure vessels of the nuclear power plants, irradiate them in the High Flux Isotope Reactor to mimic forty years, sixty years, and beyond. They bring them back to our hot-cell facilities and we’re using advanced laser techniques, friction stir welder and laser welders, to see if you can weld these materials that have been embrittled by neutrons for so long.

Again, it’s just the way that we can use our facilities and help in different areas. Something that is as old as we are, and still be able to do that.

 Kelly:  When you think about the welding, the brittleness that might be happening in our long-lived nuclear reactors, that’s an issue that—obviously, there were many reactors in the Manhattan Project, not so many now. Have you been approached by the nuclear industry to do this research?

Ezold: That’s what EPRI is, I was trying to remember what the acronym stands for. I want to say it’s the Energy [Electric] Power Research Institute. But, that’s what their entity is, it represents the nuclear power enterprise.

Kelly:  They approached you?

Ezold: They approached us, because they knew we had the capabilities to do that. It’s really driven by them. It’s been written up in the American Nuclear Society in the Nuclear News and other publications supporting the nuclear industry. 

Kelly: I was just thinking of the longevity of the nuclear reactors we have today, and the future of nuclear energy.

Ezold: I’d like to see the future keep going. I told my daughter we were not getting an electric vehicle until Watts Bar Unit Two came online. Because electric vehicles, yes, they’re cleaner. But they must get their power from somewhere. If you’re just going to have more coal or natural gas, then you’re still putting the CO2 in the environment. So, yes, the vehicle is not, but you had to power it by something that is. That’s the balance. We’ve got to figure out that balance.

Nuclear power is what they call an on-demand. It’s always going to be on. It doesn’t need the sun, it doesn’t need the wind, it’s always going to be there. It should be part of the portfolio, because it does not give off any of the carbon dioxide. We know how to safely handle them. We’ve been doing this for a long time. 

The hard part is, as nuclear engineers, we’re never very good at communicating, ever. We did not break things down to where people could understand, and we did not listen to the questions that were being asked. Yes, I will blame my own kind. We did not a very good job of communicating what we knew about them and what we believed about them and be able to say, “This is why,” as opposed to, “Just trust me, I’m an engineer.”

I think that’s where you see this new generation, with these new designs, and these advanced reactor designs, and how energetic these thirty-year-olds are and twenty-something-year-olds are. They do a much better job going out there and talking to folks and selling their designs of what’s going on. They’re very passionate about it.

I’m very hopeful, still hopeful. I think we need to look at the new designs and see where we can go with them. A small modular reactor is really no different than what you see in submarines and aircraft carriers. They’ve been around for a while, too. Again, I have confidence we can do that.

Kelly:  That’s great. Just looking at you, I realize you’re a woman, a woman scientist.

Ezold: Yes, ma’am.

Kelly:  Were you a pioneer when you first started? Do you feel that this is a good career for a woman?

Ezold: It’s definitely a good career for a woman. We talked about the diversity and the teamwork you have to have with it. It’s very good. You must communicate. Women, I think, do a better job at that. Sorry, guys.

As far as a pioneer, I don’t know. Because, again, my father just said, “You’re going to college.” There was no if, ands, or buts about that, and a career path. I chose something that fascinated me, and that’s what I tell all my students that I mentor is, “You must choose a career that you’re going to enjoy getting up every morning and doing. Because you will be doing that more than the time you spend with your family. You’re at your job more than you are at home, at least waking hours. You must find something that you’re passionate and enthusiastic about.” I was hooked then when I was sixteen years old about radioactivity, and this nuclear chemistry, and how you could do this and see things that weren’t really there. 

I don’t know about thinking about it as a pioneer as opposed to, just do. But, yeah, there were not a lot of women. But at the REDC, the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center, we do have quite a few researchers and staff members that are women. You don’t feel like you’re by yourself.