Thomas Quirk, Principal Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories

September 23, 2020


Q. At Sandia National Laboratories, the premier engineering center in the US Department of Energy, you are responsible for the design and measurements of radiation effects testing. What kind of problems are you and your team working to solve?

I get to work in a nuclear playground. When pandemics don’t interfere, I sit quite literally between two nuclear reactors and a massive gamma irradiator. The types of experiments performed at these facilities are incredibly varied. For example, some test the degradation of electrical insulation coating wires installed at nuclear power plants after enduring years of exposure. Others attempt to produce pit-less cherries or novel nanoparticles or to assess the response of darkened fiber optic cables or the performance of satellite components passing through radiation belts. I get to assist experts across countless scientific disciplines in formulating and executing successful experiments.

More specifically, I determine the amount of radiation absorbed during the test (this is called dose). One challenge I face is that users of these facilities continue to push the envelope, demanding higher levels of radiation for their tests. The traditional tools used to measure radiation dose saturate at high levels. Some of my research seeks to extend the useful ranges of radiation responses accordingly higher.

Q. You worked at the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna during one of North Korea’s weapon’s tests. Can you tell us about that experience and what you learned as a result?

The CTBTO was a fascinating place to work. Within the first week the acronym CTBTO (OTICE pour nos amis français) rolls off the tongue fairly easily. The treaty was negotiated decades ago, at least somewhat under the logic that future entrants into the “nuclear weapons club” would need to provide credibility via testing, and should not be allowed to do so secretly. Moreover, a rigorous detection system would help the established weapons states keep their promises to stop detonations, at least for the sake of testing.

The treaty established a global network of monitoring stations aimed at supplying any interested state impartial evidence of nuclear testing activity. Roughly speaking, all of the technologies employed to locate nuclear weapons tests are seismographic. Vibrations in the air, in land and in the sea provide telltale signatures of massive explosions. However, differentiating earthquakes, mining activity and nuclear tests require a so-called smoking gun. This is the role of radioactive monitoring.

Almost immediately after the 2013 DPRK test was identified, the seismologists were frantically pouring over their analyses, and emergency communications were being crafted. The radionuclide side of the house was oddly quiet. These monitoring data are not provided in real time. We had to wait for whispers of fission fragments to waft towards the stations in the region. Design iterations from previous testing experience helped the North Koreans to contain the noble gases produced from the test. It took months, but finally some escaped, providing all the evidence necessary.

We learned the system worked as planned, which is no small feat considering the treaty is not yet entered into force! Clandestine nuclear weapons tests are relegated to the history books. I witnessed firsthand what happens when people across the globe share a vision and effect the change they desire.

Q. In addition to your training in nuclear engineering, for which you hold a PhD, you also have a Masters in medical physics, specializing in cancer radiation therapy physics. I think you’re making regular nuclear engineers look like slackers. Joking aside, how has this broad perspective affected your scientific worldview?

I may soon be updating my business card to reflect the “regular nuclear engineer” designation!

Nuclear professionals practice a set of principles called nuclear safety culture. One of its key tenets is continuous learning. I will forever consider myself a student. Sometimes it is easy to practice what one preaches as there is always so much more to learn. I am reminded of the lines from Hamlet:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

One must be careful not to confuse cause and effect. A scientific worldview is predicated upon skepticism, empiricism and most importantly curiosity. Scientists should seek out the broadest perspective possible. Specialization is important, but all too often it comes at the expense of greater understanding.

I have seen the ionizing light. The nuclear world is beautifully complex—nuclear reactors, cancer therapy, medical sterilization, food irradiation, space science and diagnostic medicine. The nuclear story is so much richer when studied completely. A fifth of the electricity in the United States is produced thanks to nuclear energy (the fraction is much higher in France). It produces no greenhouse gas emissions. None! It is maddening to consider that the archetypical evil of the nuclear bogeyman has delayed the advancement of this technology in much of the world.

Q. Why did you decide to join the Young Leaders program, and what, for you, is important about strengthening international ties?

I believe that which goes unexamined becomes invisible. Any opportunity to weigh and ultimately reaffirm our international commitments is a gift that should not be overlooked. We now are able to acknowledge problems that recognize no borders. Viable solutions are much harder to produce. Collaboratively, we have engineered the International Space Station, operate the Large Hadron Collider, and are assembling ITER. We search the frontiers together.

I believe that scientists should play a more active role in shaping our future. I decided to join the Young Leaders program because science has become a whipping boy for political soundbites. Because the world demands a tweet when fruitful discussions demand nuanced, thought-out responses and engineering tradeoffs. In the words of Randall Munroe, “You don’t use science to show that you’re right, you use science to become right.”

We are all deeply connected. A fairly unique aspect of the nuclear industry is our mantra “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere.” Imagine if every car accident caused the world to revisit automobiles as a means of transportation. Even minor issues at a nuclear power plant can send ripples across the entire industry. Working in such a far-reaching web, the context of the Young Leaders program is perfectly natural.

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