Elena Kalinina has been at Sandia National Laboratories for nine years.
Elena Kalinina
Sandia National Laboratories

Elena Kalinina has been at Sandia National Laboratories for nine years, where she is currently a principal Research and Development Scientist/Engineer with the Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) Storage, Transportation, Safety and Security team. In 2017, Elena became a lead investigator of the SNF External Load Testing and Analysis Program. In her role as an expert in SNF transportation and storage, Elena leads an experimental program, whose goal is to collect data that could be used to confirm the technical basis for the safety of SNF during transportation and storage. Her team recently completed a series of experiments, including an international multi-modal transportation test and 30-cm drop tests quantifying the strain and accelerations fuel ex­­­periences during normal transportation. The team is considering a new project that will address seismic effects on the SNF in dry-storage casks.  

Elena has received multiple awards over the course of her career. Her recent awards include: DOE Secretary's Achievement Award for the multi-modal transportation test (2018), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) award for outstanding technical paper (2019), and a Sandia National Laboratories Employee Recognition Award for Leadership (2020). Elena received a doctorate in hydrology from Moscow State University. 

What inspired you to work in STEM?

I want to share my passion for science. I really enjoy my work and I think I can show others that, besides being important, it is also lots of fun and very cool. Science brings people together. I worked on a number of international projects and it was one of the greatest experiences. 

What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

Finding a permanent disposal solution for spent nuclear fuel is a complex, multi-disciplinary, and multi-generational problem. I am very proud to be involved in this work and I have had an opportunity to work on many aspects of finding solutions to this national problem.

For a number of years, I was writing and running computer models to determine the flow and transport of radionuclides in the subsurface environment to determine the performance of a deep geologic repository. Then, I got involved in the modeling of logistics related to the transport of spent nuclear fuel from the reactor sites to a potential consolidated storage facility and/or a potential geologic repository. In 2017, I became a lead investigator of the spent nuclear fuel transportation experimental program.

I fell in love with the experimental work. I was very proud that we are almost able to close the gap related to NCT. It would not be possible without the experimental work that we can do at the national labs. Our experiments also provided invaluable data for computer model validation to be able to predict the external loads fuel will experience when it has been in a reactor and when it is transported in containers different from the one we specifically tested. We are starting to consider and plan a new experiment to understand the behavior of SNF when it experiences different magnitude earthquakes.

At the present time, all reactor sites, except four, have on-site dry storage facilities. Some of the reactor sites are located in areas of the country with the higher probability for a large earthquake. We are planning to use the largest shaker table facility in the world to conduct these experiments. The data would potentially be of great value to the DOE, NRC, reactor sites, utilities, SNF cask vendors, public, and international community.

How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

I think that the engagement has to start as early as in elementary school. Based on what I saw when my son was growing up, the science Olympiads (at school) and science fairs (mostly supported by parents) were very important for sparking an interest in science. They also helped to develop good writing and presentation skills and provided great encouragement and even scholarships for some. There are many good science summer camps and they give an opportunity to try different things each year. At Sandia, take your daughters to work day is also a good way to get girls interested in science.  Finally, the parents’ role is crucial. There are so many things we can do at the family level.

Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

This is a complex and very diverse field. My recommendation is to investigate the different aspects of it and select a few that seem to be of most interest. I suggest talking to many different people. They can give you a perspective that would be hard to find elsewhere. I also suggest attending the Women in Nuclear conference.  I was inspired by the speakers at this conference and I was amazed by how many women are in this field. Finally, networking is very important too. Stay in touch and learn what is new on an everyday basis. 

When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

I adore the outdoors and I like all the activities that can be done outdoors. I love New Mexico for the great weather and beautiful mountains. I grew up in Moscow, Russia, and the cold weather is something I don’t miss. I love cross country and downhill skiing, figure skating (which is a Russian thing), roller blading, swimming, running, and hiking. I also love traveling and, I always take walking tours to learn about the history of the city/country. I love opera and I recently realized a dream of mine– I went to see an opera at the Vienna opera house.


Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at /women