INL computational scientist solves mysteries of nuclear science
Andrea Jokisaari is sort of like a Sherlock Holmes of nuclear energy.
Jokisaari, a computational scientist at Idaho National Laboratory (INL), works to unlock the mysteries of how fuel and materials change over time in nuclear power plants, information crucial for plant safety and economics.
“I really like solving problems, especially by applying logic and systematically examining something aspect by aspect,” Jokisaari said. “Theory and computation allow me to do that in a way that can’t really be done with experiments and allow us to understand what happens during experiments.”
What is a computational scientist? It is a discipline that uses mathematical models to solve scientific problems. Typically, the term refers to the use of computers to perform simulations.
Jokisaari’s work focuses on being able to predict irradiation damage and how it changes material properties from fundamental physics. “This lets us be able to predict behavior of materials under many kinds of irradiation conditions and even helps us to design new materials for advanced reactors, so that we don’t have to do really costly and time-consuming irradiation experiments.”
Jokisaari has been involved in major computational materials science research efforts in her three years at INL. For example, she has worked with the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation program and as the deputy technical director for INL’s Nuclear Materials Discovery and Qualification Initiative, which focuses on developing next-generation tools for studying advanced reactor materials.
“I love the intersection that INL provides. I sit at this huge intersection between basic science, applied science, engineering, and the industrial nature of realizing new nuclear power plant designs,” she said. “I also sit at the intersection of many different disciplines and types of personnel, from operations to interns to doctorates in nuclear physics. This dynamism is so energizing for me.”
Growing up in upstate South Carolina, her family had an interest in nuclear energy’s history. Jokisaari frequented the American Museum of Science and Energy at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the visitor’s center at the Oconee Nuclear Station on Lake Keowee, South Carolina.
“We had copies of ‘The Making of the Atomic Bomb’ by Richard Rhodes and ‘The Los Alamos Primer’ floating around and had ongoing conversations around the dinner table about nuclear energy,” she said.
As an undergraduate at South Carolina’s Clemson University, she discovered materials science as a discipline. In graduate school at the University of Michigan she immersed herself in studying nuclear materials, earning a doctoral degree in 2016. There, she conducted research on hydride formation in zirconium, which impacts how light-water reactor fuel cladding performs.
“My graduate studies cemented my desire to work in the field of nuclear materials science and introduced me to INL. I started out as an experimentalist in undergrad and grad school but realized over time that I was more interested in theory and computation. “
To Jokisaari, nuclear energy not only helps provide carbon-free power but also saves lives.
The nuclear-powered aircraft supercarriers of the United States Navy (for example, the USS Carl Vinson) are often sent to disaster areas to provide critical relief.
“This relief includes generating power and desalinating water for the area in crisis, both of which are done using the energy from the ship’s nuclear reactor,” she said. “This was critical for aid in Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake.”