College of Engineering University of Wisconsin-Madison
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EPISODE: The Engineering Physics Department Newsletter


Fall / Winter 2006-2007
Featured articles

University of Wisconsin Energy Institute engages stakeholders in creative solutions

Designing ways to help ITER operate safely

Learning why fusion plasmas sometimes act unpredictably

GOOD HEAVENS: Space telescopes may have steadier view

EP alum honored on Engineers' Day

A "hot" idea for insulating tiny batteries

Regular Features

Message from the chair

Department News

Alumni News with Alumni Profile: John Parkyn


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Do you have a new job, address, spouse or child? Please let us know what good things are happening with your lives and careers and we will share the news with EP alumni in this column.

Send your address changes, alumni news or questions to:
EP Alumni News, 147 Engineering Research Building, 1500 Engineering Dr., Madison, WI 53706; or E-mail them to

The Fusion Technology Institute maintains a web-based list of fusion alumni and their current employers; you can access it at You also can send in updates through that webpage.

Thomas Hunter (MSNE ’76, PhDNE ’78), president of Sandia Corporation and director of Sandia National Laboratories, delivered the lecture, “The new face of engineering,” Nov. 29 on the UW-Madison campus. In the talk, Hunter highlighted current examples that point to the engineering methodology needed for tomorrow and presented his vision for how university-industry-national laboratory partnerships can help span the technical breadth and depth required for the future of engineering, and of future engineers.


Decorative initial cap In 1982, the U.S. Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, a law that set forth a national program for safely and permanently disposing of spent nuclear fuel. However, more than a decade later, the government's on-again, off-again approach to the project had left utilities with no repository—and no choice but to store their spent fuel on site at nuclear plants around the country.

Frustrated, representatives from more than 40 utilities and entities met to explore alternatives and, in 1995, eight of those utilities formed Private Fuel Storage (PFS). With alumnus John Parkyn as chairman and CEO, the limited liability corporation sought permission from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a facility in Skull Valley, Utah, to temporarily store the nation’s spent nuclear fuel in a single location. “We got our license Feb. 21, 2006, after more hearings and requests for additional information than you can imagine,” says Parkyn. “It was the first real licensing in about two decades.”

John Parkyn

John Parkyn (Larger image)

Decades of nuclear power

Born toward the end of World War II, Parkyn grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a town with environmental problems that included a coal-fired power plant. “I started thinking, as I saw some of the issues with burning coal in the city (many homes also did), that there had to be a better way,” he says.

Inspired by the promise of nuclear power, a field then beginning to come into its own, Parkyn enrolled in the recently established nuclear engineering department at UW-Madison. “I wanted to do something to clean up the air,” he says.

To this day, says Parkyn, he appreciates his multidisciplinary education, which included not only heavy doses of physics, calculus and math, but also courses in such fields as automobile thermodynamics, materials and circuits. “Engineers in the nuclear business need to be willing to master, along with science and math, the ability to speak in public and let people hear the other side,” he says. “So you spend a lot of your life as a teacher.”

Parkyn has been certified to operate four units of three different types of reactors. Midway through his undergraduate degree, the U.S. Army drafted him and he served two years during the Vietnam War at a base in New Mexico. There, he became certified as an operator on a fast-burst reactor, a kind of reactor used mainly for research.

Back in Wisconsin, Parkyn earned his bachelor’s degree in 1972 and became a licensed senior reactor operator and an operations engineer with Wisconsin Electric Power (now We Energies) at its Point Beach Nuclear Plant. Two years later, he returned to his hometown as operations engineer on the La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, owned by Dairyland Power Cooperative.

There, Parkyn became assistant super-intendent, and later, plant manager and chief nuclear officer. Although the reactor was safe and in good condition, Dairyland decided for fiscal reasons to shut it down when it reached the 20th and final year of its original design.

That was 1987, and Parkyn led the shutdown. Yet, even now, Dairyland cannot fully decommission the reactor because its spent fuel is still stored on site—a site that costs the cooperative more than $5.5 million a year for security, maintenance and monitoring. “I’ve handled a lot of spent fuel,” says Parkyn. “You can safely store it, but you can also store it more safely—and that was the intent of the 1982 law. It was never intended for spent fuel to be left where it is. And 50 years is a long time.”

A place to store waste

Dairyland is among the eight utilities comprising Private Fuel Storage. Parkyn, still a Dairyland employee, now devotes much of his time to making PFS a reality. Among his greatest challenges has been defending the company’s license application against nearly 150 contentions, or challenges—an ordeal that extended the application and licensing process to eight and a half years.

PFS has appeared before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the U.S. Supreme Court, and twice before U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington, D.C., winning all four rulings. In early 2007, PFS will defend the NRC license and land lease during appeals in the U.S. Court of Appeals and in Utah.

He has worked with Congress to convince elected officials that PFS is a solution to the nearly 40,000 MTUs (metric tons of uranium) of spent fuel that have accumulated at 72 nuclear power plants across 31 states. “Costs right now are estimated at about $1.5 billion a year to leave it where it is and about $60 million a year to put everything in the country in Utah at this site,” says Parkyn.

The site, which the company is leasing from the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians, is key because of its distance from population centers and surface waters. “We picked the site using a strong technical basis because of very low population density—only 31 people in five miles, and with no one living closer than 21⁄2 miles away,” he says. “There’s no standing surface water within 10 miles—no lakes or rivers—and no underground water within 200 feet of surface. So if you hypothesize an accidental event, you can recover totally without anybody having any sort of injurious radiation exposure.”

Once PFS receives its final go-ahead, potentially sometime in 2007, the storage facility can be constructed and begin accepting spent fuel within two and a half to three years. In a best-case scenario, says Parkyn, crews could add nearly 8,000 MTUs per year, or about 800 casks of spent fuel.

An environmental solution

A firm believer in nuclear power as a clean, safe and environmentally friendly source of electricity, Parkyn is very much aware of the social responsibility that comes with it. And, as a member of the generation that helped nuclear come into its own, he claims that responsibility. “Nuclear power is better than other forms of generation because it doesn’t pollute,” he says. “The strong point of nuclear power is used against it. Its waste forms are solid. So unlike other generation, we don’t emit into the air anything significant and let the air dilute it, and we don’t release anything significant into the river and let the water dilute it.

“We have a solid waste form—and that solid becomes a source of concern. It’s radioactive waste. So if you really care about this being an environmental solution for the future, then you really ought to care about the back end of the cycle.”


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Date last modified: Friday, 22-Dec-2006 11:49:00 CDT
Date created: 22-Dec-2006