Dr Syed Bahauddin Alam, Nuclear Scientist French Atomic Energy Commission, France and Academic Collaborator, University of Cambridge, UK

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Advancing Nuclear Now: Full Atoms Ahead

Given your experience as a Nuclear Scientist at the French Atomic Energy Commission. Can you tell us about your journey in this field?
The French Atomic Energy Commission is the largest research and development center in Europe. According to Reuters, is cited “The World’s Most Innovative Research Institution”. I am the first Bangladeshi citizen working in the Nuclear Research and Development (RnD) Division of French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA Cadarache). I received my Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from Cambridge University in 2018. I also received an MPhil in Nuclear Energy from Cambridge University in 2013. I completed my undergraduate in Electrical Engineering from BUET.

Tell us more about your research:
My Ph.D. research was focused on the “Design of Advanced Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Cores for Civil Nuclear Marine Propulsion”. In principle, uranium dioxide is used as a nuclear fuel in a nuclear reactor core. Uranium mainly consists of two major isotopes: 0.70% of Uranium-235 (fissile material) and 99.3% of Uranium-238 (fertile material). Uranium-235 actually plays a pivotal role in sustaining nuclear fission chain reactor, whereas Uranium-238 captures a neutron and produce another fissile material Plutonium-239. To sustain a chain reaction, it is required to increase the concentration of Uranium-235. Generally, marine propulsion reactor core uses highly enriched fuel (Uranium-235 concentration of more than 90%) for a long reactor core life of 20 to 30 years, although there are residual risks of proliferation (nuclear bomb) when Uranium-235 concentration exceeds more than 20%. However, a very high concentration of Uranium-235 is generally used by the US /UK military. In my research, I proposed to replace a fraction of fertile material Uranium-238 to Thorium-232, which is abundant in nature and also an excellent material. One of the best characteristics of Thorium-232 is that it can produce Uranium-233 by capturing a neutron and this Uranium-233 has superior neutronic characteristics than that of the Uranium-235. Keeping this in mind, I designed and tested a new type of exotic nuclear fuel (with 100% thorium dioxide) and designed an advanced small modular reactor (SMR)-that can provide longer reactor life and better control of reactor core, compared to the conventional uranium dioxide fuel.

Generally, a marine propulsion reactor uses highly enriched fuel (Uranium-235 concentration more than 90%) for long core life, whereas I designed an SMR core with low enriched uranium fuel (Uranium-235 concentration lower than 20%) which is an obvious benefit from the nuclear non-proliferation perspective. It is well known that highly enriched uranium of more than 20% Uranium-235 has a potential risk of translating to the proliferation issues, whereas my invented fuel is almost risk-free. In my research, I actually designed and tested a fuel which has the potential to breed alternative, yet superior nuclear fuel material Uranium-233.

Furthermore, nuclear reactor cores generally use soluble-boron (by capturing neutrons) to control the reactor core. In order to simplify the marine reactor system, I excluded the soluble-boron system and designed an alternative reactor core control system which has proved to be very efficient. I also opened a new avenue for SMR research, where all the designed SMR cores are limited to core power density of 65 MW/m3. I designed a core structure of SMR with 100 MW/m3 in order to obtain more compact designs with better economic performance, although this poses a serious challenge from the thermal and fluid perspective. In order to evaluate the thermomechanical performances, along with my colleague from Cambridge and Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), I evaluated a code system that can accurately predict the practical thermomechanical performances.

Just after my Ph.D., I started working at the Nuclear R&D Division of French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA Cadarache). I am working with the team on developing a nuclear system code to evaluate “nuclear gamma heating” for the Generation IV fast breeder reactor, which is very challenging to design.

“In my research, I actually designed and tested a fuel which has the potential to breed alternative, yet superior nuclear fuel material Uranium-233.”

Where did you get the opportunities to work on your inventions?
I worked as a researcher at nuclear engineering laboratories, such as the US government lab at Rhode Island Atomic Energy Commission (a concern of US Atomic Energy Commission), UC Berkeley, Brown University and Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

Did you receive awards for your breakthrough research?
I received 4 awards from the American and Japan Nuclear Society, including the American Nuclear Society Best Student Paper & Best Scientific Poster Award and American Nuclear Society Best Technical Poster Award. I also obtained prestigious fellowships from a different organization such as the winner of a “Frédéric Joliot/Otto Hahn Fellowship” from the French Atomic Energy Commission in 2018 and Japan Atomic Energy Agency Fellowship 2017 as Extraordinary Early-Career Nuclear Scientist. 

Did you receive any awards from Cambridge University for your contribution to research?
I have been awarded multiple awards from Cambridge University for my Ph.D. research upon the recommendation of my supervisor and tutor from Cambridge:
• Cambridge Philosophical Society Award 2017 
• Cambridge Trust Award 2017
• Cambridge Postgraduate Santander Award 2017  
• Cambridge St. Edmund’s College Tutorial Award 
• Cambridge University Board of Graduate Studies Research Award 2016 

What is your impression on the nuclear scenario in Bangladesh?
During my visit to Bangladesh, while participating in seminars, I observed that there is a serious phobia surrounding nuclear topics among the local students and people. It is a common misconception that it is impossible to be awarded a scholarship for Ph.D./MS in Nuclear Engineering topics abroad, being a Bangladeshi Muslim. It is also not true that it is almost impossible to get a job in nuclear industries outside the country if one is a Muslim. Through my writing and sharing my full professional experience, I would like to clear up all these misconceptions. Since Bangladesh is currently establishing the Rooppur nuclear power plant, it is a serious issue now. I believe that a powerful letter, contacting corresponding professors and satisfying fundamental admission formalities is sufficient to be awarded admission and scholarships in Nuclear Engineering fields in any university abroad. There are lots of Muslim Nuclear Scientists working in the USA, the UK, France, and other countries. In order to be a nuclear self-sufficient country, we need to start preparing our own engineers for the future. 

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