Ben Betzler: Engineering solutions for nuclear energy

Ben Betzler, a reactor physics nuclear engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Ben Betzler, a reactor physics nuclear engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is doing research on current and advanced nuclear reactor technologies. “I did well on various aptitude tests in high school, and engineering was strongly encouraged. And there are a lot of options-aerospace, mechanical-but what sounds cooler than nuclear?” Betzler said. Credit: Carlos Jones, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

As a reactor physics nuclear engineer, Ben Betzler leverages and develops computational methods to solve questions across nuclear energy-whether it’s finding the best design of a reactor core or repurposing an old tool for a new analysis.

When looking for those answers, Betzler often finds his inspiration not on his computer, but on the equation-filled whiteboards in his office.

“I’ve always loved math, and my work is based on building and using mathematical models to better understand and improve nuclear systems,” Betzler said. “And it is easier for me to understand a problem and find a solution through these equations than by using words.”

That natural ability is imperative to Betzler’s research of current and advanced nuclear reactor technologies as a staff member at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And though his mathematical instincts fit well into his engineering efforts, his path was not as simple as one plus one.

A globe-trotting childhood

Growing up in a military family in Okinawa, he watched as many friends moved on after their parents’ three-year tours ended. Once his family returned to the United States during his teenage years, Betzler learned how his childhood overseas made him a bit different from the typical American high school student.

“Before moving to Texas, I thought people moving in and out of your life was just the way of the world. You have friends that are there one minute, and they are gone and eventually turn into pen pals,” he said with laugh. “It definitely made me who I am-reflective, adaptable and willing to seek the next challenge.”

Those experiences and qualities eased Betzler’s move northward, where he was drawn to a leading engineering college at the University of Michigan. In addition, the talk of a nuclear renaissance in the early 2000s created a promising career path. Nuclear science also offered something the other sciences could not.

“Honestly, I did not know much at all about nuclear before choosing it for my undergraduate degree,” he said. “I did well on various aptitude tests in high school, and engineering was strongly encouraged. And there are a lot of options-aerospace, mechanical-but what sounds cooler than nuclear?”

After completing his undergraduate degree, Betzler remained at UM’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences to complete his master’s degree and Ph.D. During that time, doors continued to open, including a chance to join ORNL.

‘Rolling sixes’ at ORNL

In the early 2010s, Betzler landed an internship at ORNL near the time when the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors-DOE’s first Energy Innovation Hub-was founded. CASL’s effort to extend the lifetime of current nuclear reactors through advanced modeling techniques included founding partners from industry and nationally recognized nuclear engineering programs, including UM. It left an impression on Betzler.

“Before 2010, other than knowing Oak Ridge existed, the national laboratory system was not familiar to me,” he said. “But through the internship and exposure with UM’s connection to CASL, it became clear what a great place this would be to work.

“I love the structure and how I have been set up to succeed,” he said. “From day one, I have had great bosses, who were focused on developing younger staff and providing a broad range of opportunities.”

In his five years as a member of ORNL’s Reactor and Nuclear Systems Division, Betzler has worked on projects related to spent fuel, analysis of the High Flux Isotope Reactor’s operations, and improvements to the lab’s SCALE code system, a simulation tool used for nuclear analysis and design.

He has also led the modeling and simulation planning for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s Molten Salt Reactor Campaign, a multilaboratory effort for developing tools to support the licensing and design of MSRs. In the last year, he turned his attention to leading the design for the Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration Program, an effort to design, build and operate a reactor using advanced manufacturing.

“TCR is a great opportunity to pursue something truly groundbreaking,” Betzler said. “Nuclear is at a crossroads because current reactors will not last forever. The TCR program could produce significant momentum and change across the industry.”

Each opportunity since his arrival in East Tennessee has offered Betzler unique challenges and continuous growth as an engineer-something he believes happened because of the right timing and a bit of luck.

“I came to ORNL as an intern when CASL just started. As soon as I arrived as a staff member in 2014, the nuclear community became extremely interested in MSRs. And now we’ve launched an innovative program like TCR,” Betzler said. “It feels like I’ve rolled the dice a bunch of times and hit a lot of sixes.”

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