Last week I traveled to Idaho Falls along with PopAtomic Student Advisor Jim Bowen to tour portions of the Idaho National Lab and give a short presentation about PopAtomic Studios. I was invited by Todd Allen, Scientific Director of the Advanced Test Reactor, and he was kind enough to take us all over the campus which starts in the city and sprawls out into the desert, surrounded by monolithic buttes and distant mountains. It is a truly epic landscape which somehow compliments the prodigious research happening there. Thankfully Jim was there to help explain everything to me, since in recent months he has become something of a technical translator for the PopAtomic crew.
We started the day at the Hot Fuel Examination Facility. This was the first time I’ve been inside of a secure area of a nuclear facility, and I must admit it was very exciting! Once I got over the 4 feet of concrete and lead glass separating me from the equipment I started to recognize familiar forms. There were band saws, induction furnaces, and a variety of wrenches and hammers, not so different from tools I’ve used before to make sculptures. In fact most of the crew working in the facility were dressed in canvas trousers and t-shirts and didn’t look a whole lot different than my artist friends. However, the differences emerged as I learned more about the research happening at the HFEF.
At one of the windows, complete with manipulator for handing the hot equipment, research was being conducted for a potential cancer treatment. At another window I was allowed to use the manipulator to pick up a small wrench- something that was surprisingly difficult. This experience gave me a whole new respect for the lab workers who train for up to two years before becoming fluent in working with these advanced tools.
Next on our tour was the Electron Microscopy Lab, which was pretty mind boggling. These are not just any microscopes-they are huge, state of the art machines. Between the Hot Fuel Examination Facility and the Electron Microscopy Lab, Engineers are able to prepare materials to go into the Advanced Test Reactor, which will ultimately inform the way that we move forward with Generation IV technologies in this country.
Another really interesting thing I learned was that this equipment essentially belongs to the scientific community. Anyone with a great idea can partner with a University, write a research proposal and if approved, go to Idaho National Lab and use their facilities. A rock solid idea + great proposal = free access to top of the line research facilities.
I must say that the Department of Energy did a great job with this set up, which promotes collaborative efforts between academic institutions, government engineers and scientists, and even corporations, so long as the research is non-proprietary. This uncommon kind of interdisciplinary thinking has great potential for the emergence of significant findings, and I encourage all of the engineers, students and other folks in the pro-nuclear community to learn more about the User Facility concept: http://atrnsuf.inl.gov/. These resources belong to the community and we should be actively utilizing them.
So, back to our visit, after the tour I was able to meet with members of the Education and Communications departments and hear about some of their outreach methods, including an annual workshop for high school physics teachers. This is precisely the kind of program I hope that PopAtomic Studios will be involved with in the future, so I was pretty thrilled to learn about it! I also gave a presentation, which was videotaped, and I will post it as soon as I have access to it. It covered my personal history as an artist as well as the programs and goals of PopAtomic, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of young people who came out of the INL wood work for the talk.
Overall it was a great learning experience for me, an industry outsider of sorts, to see the facilities at Idaho National Lab. I was very impressed with everyone I met, and was particularly excited to learn about the User Facility at the ATR, as well as the Educational Outreach programs happening at INL (I’m finally catching on to all of the acronyms!). I am excited to share this information in hopes that both our science and art audiences have learned a little more about the resources available through the Idaho National Lab.
Thanks to Todd Allen for inviting me to visit INL and Renae Soelberg for arranging our trip!
-Suzanne Hobbs, 8/31/2010
As always, for more, visit me here:
( Http://www.popatomic.org )