Weapons Complex Vol. 25 No. 29
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Weapons Complex Monitor
Article 3 of 15
July 18, 2014

Could ‘ARPA-EM’ Approach Aid Development of New Cleanup Technologies?

By Mike Nartker

New Task Force To Look at Ways to Improve EM Tech. Development

Mike Nartker
WC Monitor

Efforts to develop new cleanup-related technologies could be aided through the creation of a program similar to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Savannah River National Laboratory Director Terry Michalske said this week. Michalske outlined what he called “ARPA-EM” during remarks at the initial meeting of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s Task Force on Technology Development for Environmental Management. The DARPA approach is “a way of thinking about how you approach problems that actually fits into … that innovation ecosystem that has to happen to get things from a good idea to, ‘Wow, I saved a billion dollars,’” Michalske said. “If you look at the way DARPA works, they don’t invent anything, really. What they do is they try and find out what people are doing and adapt that to their needs.”

An ARPA-EM approach would employ a set of program managers to help guide technology development with a focus on actual implementation for specific needs at DOE cleanup sites. “These program managers better understand that they have to deliver something that’s going to be so compelling that it’s in their [EM’s] interest to take it. But where things aren’t working, I think, is we don’t have the investment or the continuity to get things to that space, and I’ve watched a couple of those in the short time I’ve been at the lab where yes, it’s a good idea, but we really haven’t proven this part yet. And it’s kind of a euphemism for well, we won’t have to worry about that,” he said.  “This sanctuary is not unlimited, but it’s to allow it to grow enough to stand on its own or not. And one has to accept in that kind of work that not everything will make it. There will be a lot of things that we tried and they just didn’t work. And if we’re not willing to do that, innovation dies all by itself.”

Michalske suggested that an ARPA-EM approach may work best if it were located outside of the Office of Environmental Management. “When they created DARPA, it needed to be stand-alone. Remember the services have research programs. They’re all looking at how to do the best in improving what they do today. But they use DARPA to give them revolutionary and clearly disruptive options,” he said. “If you put an organization like that into the operating organization, it tends to have a hard time being disruptive. Who wants to disrupt themselves? It’s hard for an organization to put forward ideas that would rattle their own cage.” As an “interim-step,” the program could be located within DOE’s existing Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), Michalske said. “I like ARPA-E just because they have a similar kind of job so there’s a culture there of being innovative that would help this group.”

EM Needs to Better Communicate Tech. Needs, Official Says

The new task force has been charged with examining opportunities and barriers for EM’s technology development efforts, and expects to prepare a final report by the end of this year. EM officials have long stressed the need for new cleanup technologies to help reduce lifecycle costs and accelerate work. EM Senior Technical Advisor Rod Rimando noted at this week’s meeting that DOE is facing a “compliance gap” of $15-32 billion between projected funding levels and estimated costs over the next several years. “We believe that part of the solution is the early investment in innovative solutions and taking advantage of the state-of-the-art to reduce the cost of that gap and the risks associated with that workscope,” Rimando said. “I’m a true believer that there are ways, there are techniques, there’s tooling out there, that we should be using, we should be leveraging, to make our work that much safer, quicker and more efficient.”

From the audience at the meeting, EM Deputy Assistant Secretary for Site Restoration Mark Gilbertson said, “Why we need technology is because I’m not sure we’re going to be able to get to where we need to go if we’re kept at current funding profiles with aging infrastructure and with the problems we need to solve. … This is the third of fourth largest liability that the federal government has. So for us to figure out a way to do it in the optimum value to minimize that liability is the big challenge that we have here.”

EM’s efforts to obtain technology development funds, however, have not always been met with support from lawmakers. “I think we have not done a very good job explaining what is it exactly we need technology development dollars for,” said Monica Regalbuto, Associate Principal Deputy Assistant EM Secretary and the White House’s choice to lead EM. “Unfortunately, some people, when we say we need new technology, it equates to ‘I need a new process to solidify fission products.’ And that’s not what we need to do. We have a solidification process—it’s called vitrification. It is the baseline, and we continue to make it the baseline. What we do need is an investment in those technologies to make those technologies significantly more efficient,” Regalbuto said. She added, “We need to be really narrow on what is it we’re trying to do, and I think those conversations have been lost unfortunately.”

If Robots Can Go to Mars, Why Not WIPP?

As an example of the technology needs EM faces, Regalbuto cited the area of robotics and autonomous systems, which she described as a “pet peeve.” Such systems would be useful as DOE works to determine the cause of a radiological release that occurred at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that resulted in the ongoing shutdown of the facility, she suggested. “To me, the biggest disappointment is I can take a rover to Mars, and Mars is a pretty harsh environment. … I can land it. I can take a sample. I can assay the sample with a rover and send the data back to the planet Earth. But I don’t have the equivalent robot to take to WIPP. And it’s on planet Earth. And it’s not that far,” she said. “So … the irony of this is if I can do it for Mars, why can I not do it for my mine that is on this planet?”

Another technology need for EM, according to Regalbuto, is improvements in how DOE will dispose of processed high-level waste. “It’s critically important to address not just the process but where are we going to dispose of this material,” she said. “We all pretty much know that high-level waste has to go into a deep geological repository. The problem that we face today is that we break it into here is the feed, here is the process, out comes this output, and nobody says, ‘What happens to this output later on when we have to dispose of it? How are we going to transport it? How are we going to package it? Is this the best form that we should do for a disposal system?’” Regalbuto added, “It’s not just about optimizing your little tank and your little farm. It is about optimizing the whole system.”

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