Jamie Coble’s ties to the East Tennessee region brought her home to become an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee.
Coble was born in Florence, Alabama, and grew up primarily in Johnson City, Tennessee, where her father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The family lived all along the Tennessee River Valley.
Coble’s interest in engineering came about via influence from family and friends and through her early interest in math and science.
“When I was growing up, I had several friends whose dads were scientists and engineers at local companies–mostly at Nuclear Fuels Services and Eastman,” Coble said. “I talked with them about their work and responsibilities, and the opportunities were very exciting. I enjoyed math and science in grade school, and my AP Physics teacher (L.G. Smith) advised me to look into engineering. L.G. suggested nuclear engineering as an area with a lot of opportunities. When I was choosing a major my freshman year, the impending nuclear renaissance was all the buzz.”
Coble received all four of her degrees from UT–a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering and mathematics in 2005, a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 2006, a master’s degree in reliability and maintenance engineering in 2009, and a PhD in nuclear engineering in 2010.
Coble initially went to work at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory after receiving her doctorate degree, working as a staff scientist in the Applied Physics group for two years. Although she enjoyed the work, she missed the university and the Appalachian Region. When the opportunity came up to return to UT as an assistant professor, she eagerly accepted it.
“I always hoped to be a professor eventually because I love the university environment,” Coble commented. “I got a fantastic education at UT, and I am very excited to be part of the department on this side of the classroom. The department has experienced impressive growth over the last several years, in terms of student body, faculty, and research. We have excellent research labs planned for our new building, which will open even more areas of research for the department.”
Coble’s research falls under the broad umbrella of instrumentation and controls (I&C), specifically focused on data-driven methods for equipment condition assessment, fault detection and diagnostics, and prognostics. Coble and her research team collect data on operating components (such as pumps, valves, motors) and analyze the data to determine if there is a fault in the equipment and estimate how much longer the equipment can operate before it breaks. This work supports optimized operations and maintenance planning for nuclear power plants to reduce the cost of generating electricity while maintaining the high safety and reliability standards currently enjoyed in the US nuclear fleet.
Coble’s team recently received a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nuclear Energy University Programs for a research project headed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory with UT as a collaborating institution.
“This project was awarded through the DOE-NE Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (NEET) program to a collaboration between UTK, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Analysis and Measurement Services Corporation (AMS), a local company owned by UT nuclear engineering graduate Hash Hashemian,” Coble commented. “This project is focused on empirical modeling methods for sensor calibration assessment to support reduced sensor calibration requirements in nuclear power plants.”
Currently in the US, nuclear plants are required to recalibrate all of their safety-related instrumentation every eighteen to twenty-four months (depending on the plant). Studies by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) suggest that only 3-5% of the sensors are actually out of calibration. The unnecessary recalibration efforts are expensive, time consuming, and contribute to radiation exposure for plant personnel. Future reactor designs feature longer refueling cycles (from four to forty years), which don’t provide the convenient opportunities for calibration assessment expected for the current fleet.
Coble’s team is developing methods to use the data that are being collected by the plant process monitoring and control sensors to evaluate the calibration of these sensors as the plant is operating. With this analysis, plants can focus recalibration efforts on those sensors that need it.
Coble’s future goals include expanding on the current work in monitoring and prognostics to see how the results can be used to make informed decisions. She has been involved in work with PNNL to incorporate equipment condition assessment and prognostics into online risk monitors for advanced reactors, and wants to continue in this vein to provide actionable information for prognostics-informed risk assessment, control, and operations planning.
Operations and maintenance costs make up 60-70% of the generation costs of nuclear power, Coble added; reducing these costs while maintaining extremely high safety margins will continue to make nuclear competitive as an energy source moving forward.
Coble also enjoys her role in teaching future nuclear engineers, and UTNE students are some of the best and brightest in the country.
“We attract some of the best nuclear engineering students at both the undergraduate and graduate level,” Coble commented. “With our close proximity to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TVA, and the Southern Company, we’re uniquely positioned to offer students a lot of opportunities for research and industry internships.”
Coble is also optimistic about the possibilities for nuclear power in the future.
“This is a very exciting time for the nuclear power industry. People are starting to recognize the value of nuclear power as a safe, clean, reliable source of energy and a necessary part of our energy future,” Coble said. “We have five reactors under construction in the US, with the first coming online within the next six months. We have many innovative designs available with enhanced safety features, such as passive cooling systems, and new operating paradigms like those we see with small modular reactors). As we move away from fossil fuels for our baseload energy generation and develop markets for small modular reactors, we expect a lot of growth going forward in the nuclear industry.”
During her time away from campus, Coble likes to spend time with her cat, Lillith Cheeterah, who has been with the professor since Coble was an undergrad. She also enjoys hiking in the Smoky Mountains, biking on the greenways around town. Coble also frequently visits her brother, Duncan, who is an English teacher at Anderson County, and his wife, Sara, who works for the Department of Children’s Services, and their family who also live in Knoxville.