Schreyer Scholar researches ways to mitigate risk of nuclear accidents


By Jeff Rice

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — John Barton is a big fan of clean energy sources like wind and solar power. He is also a fan of contingency plans.

“But what do you do when you have situations where it’s not so sunny or windy? You need a baseload power,” said Barton, a third-year nuclear engineering undergraduate student and Schreyer Scholar at Penn State. “So, to replace coal as this large power source that is always running, you need something like nuclear.”

Barton added that nuclear energy entails risk, which is part of what motivated him to spend 10 weeks during the summer participating in the Westinghouse Undergraduate Fellows Program.

The program, housed in the Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering, usually hosts undergraduate students from across the country at University Park for hands-on research experience and professional development. Fellows receive a $6,000 stipend, tours of research facilities and Westinghouse headquarters and networking opportunities. This year, due the ongoing pandemic, the program was held virtually from early June to early August.

As a fellow, Barton explored ways to make zirconium alloy fuel rods more accident-tolerant. Under the mentorship of Douglas Wolfe, Penn State professor of materials science and engineering, nuclear engineering, and engineering science and mechanics, Barton researched various methods of adding a protective chromium coating to the fuel rods, which helps protect them from oxidation and corrosion and also assists in mitigating loss-of-coolant accidents (LOCA).

One of those processes is known as cold spray, which adds a relatively thick coating to the rods. Another technique, called “sputtering,” deposits the chromium to the rods via an ionized plasma coating by controlling the magnetic field inside a vacuum chamber.

The bulk of his research was done on a process known as electroplating, which is commonly used in other industries, including the auto industry, and results in an efficient, consistent coating, according to Barton.

“Basically, you have a large vat of liquid chemicals. By running a current through it, you are able to cause a reaction that removes chrome ions from the solution you’re plating it in,” Barton said. “It attracts those ions using electricity, and they form around the thing you’re trying to coat. It results in thick coatings and is very easy to do.”

Barton presented his research to a group that included engineers and executives from Westinghouse and Penn State professors during a Microsoft Teams meeting.

“They asked me questions and challenged me in ways I might not have been prepared for,” he said.

Barton said he was grateful for the chance to gain research experience as an undergraduate student and to gain exposure to industry professionals. A desire to help take on the climate crisis is part of what led him to choose nuclear engineering as his major, and a desire to alleviate common concerns about the safety of nuclear power has been a driver for his research.

“When you look at (the accidents at) Chernobyl or Fukushima Daiichi, a big part of that was that they didn’t have these fuels that could withstand damage or loss of coolant,” he said. “Especially on the 10-year anniversary of Fukushima, I wanted to focus on these accident-tolerant fuels and work against that public perception and show that work is being done and we’re not just hoping accidents don’t happen — we’re actually doing something about it.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Scholars total nearly 2,000 students across the University. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.


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Schreyer Scholar and nuclear engineering student John Barton. IMAGE: JEFF RICE