Nuclear Energy has quite a few advantages compared to other sources of renewable energy , especially in terms of energy density and land utilization.
Jayeesh Bakshi, our next pathbreaker, Director of Engineering and New Products at Radium Incorporated, develops radiation shields used in nuclear plants and hospitals aimed at reducing radiation exposure.
Jayeesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the several applications of nuclear energy not only in power generation but also in nuclear medicine and health physics for cancer treatment and diagnostic imaging.
For students, there are not enough nuclear engineers, health or medical physicists. They are needed. So a career in radiation safety and health physics is a lucrative one, and frankly pretty cool !
Jayeesh, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Chandigarh and went to St. Johns High School. I always wanted to pursue a career in electricity generation since I was in the 8th grade. Gradually, my interests leaned towards clean energy generation. After having done my own research and getting guidance from experienced professionals, I now have a career in radiation protection where I help nuclear plant workers and hospital staff to work safely in radioactive environments.
What did you do for graduation / post graduation?
I went to Thapar University for a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and came to the US and studied Masters in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
Nuclear Energy is a very offbeat and unconventional career. What were some of the influences that made you choose such a cool career?
Assuming that the world continues to develop exponentially at the rate that we see today, and technologies advance to unimaginable levels, the number of people using high energy and resource intensive products will increase, and hence a reliable base load of electricity will become essential.
As the demand for energy consumption grows continuously, a detailed analysis is required on how large the gap is going to be between renewables and fossil fuels. Considering how countries like India, China and Brazil have become richer and will have access to more resources over the next century, we would triple or quadruple our energy consumption compared to what we have today. Tackling global warming and climate change while reducing carbon emissions is always a challenge and nuclear power has to be the solution. So I decided to pursue education in nuclear engineering, something that is not offered in Indian universities and colleges.
Dr. S.K. Sharma, Dr. S.K Gupta and Mr. Dhanesh Nagrale at the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of India (AERB) and Professor Douglass Henderson and Michael Corradini at the University of Wisconsin – Madison were my mentors.
I did a 6 month internship at the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of India in Mumbai. Due to the sensitive nature of work, I can’t go into details. Success in certain projects which involved modeling and solving multi-physics problems made things very exciting and boosted my motivation at AERB. Dr. S.K. Sharma, who was the AERB Chairman at the time, along with some other senior AERB leadership, basically told me to pursue higher education in Nuclear Sciences.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?
Though I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, a lot of the decision-making process involved asking other experienced people, understanding what it meant to do what I was planning to do, and evaluating the short-term and long-term implications of those choices. Again, I asked questions and made educated decisions. “Do not listen or follow people who do not know about your field of interest “ has always been my mantra.
I wanted to pursue a career in carbon-free power generation, and so I took up Chemical Engineering at Thapar University, Patiala. I did several internships, but the one that stuck with me the most was the one I did at Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of India. I enjoyed it the most and learned a lot there. I educated myself on Solar, Wind, Hydro, etc. and realized that none of the renewable sources of energy could compare to Nuclear Power in terms of energy density and land utilization. This led me to a Masters of Science in Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics (dual-degree) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW).
What was your experience at University of Madison – Wisconsin like? Can you talk about some of your projects on nuclear energy?
My time at University of Wisconsin-Madison was probably one of the most eye opening and elevating experiences ever. The faculty at UW were excellent. Additionally, having access to a research reactor (UWNR) where you could physically see the sciences taught in class being applied, was an unspeakable resource which helped me to develop an understanding of complex physics and mathematical problems. The faculty at UW spent a lot of time ensuring that the students (like myself) understood the basics needed to have a successful career.
I learned how to think, you know, in a whole new way. Strictly from an engineering standpoint, it was very interesting to see how nuclear physics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and behavior of materials under extreme conditions, all come together to make a nuclear power plant work. Some of my research work was aimed at modeling and calculating the radiation exposure following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident. We also used modeling and simulation codes such as Monte Carlo neutral particle (MCNP) and DANTSYS 2 to simulate the transport of neutrons and gammas through air, various shielding materials, U-235. Having access to a research nuclear reactor on campus was amazing because we studied (in class) how far a neutron would travel before a collision, following which we would actually perform experiments using the reactor to validate all that we studied in class. Similarly, we performed experiments for fast neutron flux measurements in the reactor lab based on theory that we studied in class.
One of the most important design aspects of a nuclear reactor is the successful placement of control rods, which are rods made of neutron absorbing materials and are inserted into the reactor core when you have to shut down the reactor. We also performed experiments where the effect of inserting a control rod into an operational reactor was seen. It is often heard that the reactor is critical, which means that the amount of fuel and neutrons generated per second is good enough or sufficient to have a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. We performed experiments where the reactor was made subcritical meaning having lesser number of neutrons, then gradually pulling the control rods out of the core of the reactor, and bringing it to a point that it was critical. This means that there were enough thermalized or slow neutrons to ensure a self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. I could go into a lot of detail, but to try to keep this somewhat easy, nuclear engineering is amazing and I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had to go back in time.
What was your career plan after your masters? How did you get your first break?
Nuclear energy in India is government regulated, as well as owned and operated by the government, which has partly been the reason for slow growth of the industry in India, whereas in the US, nuclear plants are owned and operated privately, but regulated by the government. The opportunity for growth and a real career was going to be in the US and not India. Hence, I decided to stay in the US after higher education. Again, asking questions to people in India, I was advised to stay in the US.
I was hired as a temporary contractor for a project which led to developing a new product for radiation protection. That project and product today has become the main business of my company and I’m still here. I got this job via a website nuclearstreet.com.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
I was debating whether to go for a PhD or take up a job in the nuclear industry (US), but as an Indian national it was next to impossible to get a job in the US nuclear industry because Indians are subject to export control restrictions. It took me about 15 months to find my first job and I still work there.
All this took a lot of time, patience, pain, sleepless nights, and a lot more. I moved to the US in 2010 and it’s 2022 now. It has taken me almost 12 years, and I still feel that I need some more time before I am settled. So, it will take time and patience. You may not get what you’re hoping to get as soon as you think it will happen. Again, ask questions from people in your industry, and try to understand how they succeeded?
Non-stop support from friends and family has been a key factor that has allowed me to stand on my own feet. I would not have been able to even wash cars if it wasn’t for them. My parents, sister, friends and now my wife, have always had my back and that has allowed me to take risks and bold steps, which have helped me grow.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your role
I work for Radium Incorporated in Virginia, U.S.A as their Director of Engineering and New Products. Our company manufactures radiation shields used in nuclear plants and hospitals aimed at reducing radiation exposure.
The basic principles of radiation safety are aimed towards ALARA dose (as low as reasonably achievable), so we always aim to minimize dose exposure. We can reduce exposure by reducing exposure time, maintaining distance from a radioactive source and having protective shielding that attenuates radiation.
I also work at V3Integrators, which is a company owned by my parent company Radium Inc. where we manufacture remote monitoring equipment for nuclear plants. Some of these equipment are underwater cameras to observe refueling operations, cameras for monitoring nuclear plants when they are producing electricity and wireless communications systems.
What problems do you solve?
The environment inside a nuclear plant is notorious for remote monitoring equipment because radiation, moisture and high temperatures don’t allow longevity for electronics. Cameras are critical for viewing work evolutions and equipment operations because workers cannot and should not go in certain areas of nuclear plants because while the plant is operational, there is a risk of high neutron and gamma radiation exposure. Wireless communications are critical for refueling outages, but its very hard to get reliable coverage. The inside of a nuclear plant has tons of exposed steel and concrete and this leads to issues with RF signals.
When I started working at Radium Incorporated, my job was to develop OH radiation shield that would be lighter than traditional shields and do a similar job as existing radiation shields. Typically, Lead (Pb) is used as a radiation shield but is toxic and very heavy. So my company hired me as a temporary contractor for three months to develop a product. I developed a product which is patented and commercially sold currently as “ClearView Radiation Shielding”. This product is used in nuclear power plants during refueling outages, spent fuel storage, in chemistry departments and many other locations. ClearView is a transparent shield and has many benefits due to its properties.
I was awarded the UW Alumni Forward Under Forty Award for developing the ClearView product and its use for better patient care.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
The study of nuclear engineering basically is a complex mixture of heat and mass transport, fluid mechanics, nuclear physics, material sciences and ionizing radiation. All these fields of sciences come together. One could develop a career working in nuclear plants.
One needs to have an understanding of ionizing radiation, transport of radiation in matter, and how / where a product needs to be used so the product is designed and performs the job it’s expected to do.
What’s a typical day like?
I get up at 6 AM, wake up my kids by 7 AM, drop them to school by 8 and reach work at 8:30. I work until 4 or 5, and spend time with family in the evenings. My typical work day has virtual meetings or calls with customers to understand their needs, then I communicate and help our manufacturing department design and develop the product. Part of my job involves traveling to nuclear plants or hospitals to talk to people who will be using the product we develop. I also attend conferences related to radiation safety in nuclear plants and nuclear medicine / healthcare.
What is it you love about this job?
I interact with radiation safety professionals from hospitals to nuclear plants and national labs. Everyone has unique needs and I think I like the challenge of solving new problems, developing and implementing our products. It keeps work exciting.
How does your work benefit society?
There are several applications of radiation shields in health physics and in radiation safety wear for nurses. Nuclear Medicine technologists need radiation protection while they administer radiopharmaceuticals to patients while they treat them for cancer or during diagnostic imaging. So our product has found applications in many areas.
ClearView shields are also used during I-131 treatment for pediatric neuroblastoma, which is a rare cancer in the nervous system of kids typically below 10 years of age. Our shields allow cancer patients (kids) to be in the same room with the parents or caregivers while undergoing radiation therapy
There are not enough nuclear engineers, health or medical physicists. They are needed. Nuclear power plants are here to stay as this is the only viable option to replace fossil fuels. Using radiation to treat cancer is gaining momentum. Every year, new radiopharmaceuticals are approved to treat cancers. So a career in radiation safety and health physics is a lucrative one, and frankly pretty cool !
Have you been involved in any other interesting or memorable activities?
I worked at the Outrider Foundation simultaneously (till 2017) while I was working at Radium Inc. Outrider foundation has a mission to educate people about the risks of nuclear weapons. I understood the energy density of U-235, and had an interest in educating the general population on the topic mentioned above. So, I worked here for about one year. My job was to basically simplify complicated nuclear engineering concepts and develop information that a common man could read and understand. Another goal of this nonprofit was also to address climate change. This was a perfect platform for me to advocate for nuclear energy as the solution to climate change and reducing carbon emissions.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
– Ask questions
– Be patient
– Make sure you know what you’re signing up for
– Enjoy your work