April 03, 2017

By Kevan Weaver, Ph.D., Director of Technology Integration

American science programs have pushed our society forward for decades. Programs like DOE National Laboratories and NASA continue to expand scientific and technological boundaries, and form the bedrock of advancement that betters societies.

The Atoms for Peace program led by President Eisenhower ushered in peace and prosperity. And this impressive work continues today, moving towards the next generation of breakthroughs and advanced nuclear technologies. We expect these technologies will shape up to be catalysts for lateral innovation across different industries, just as their predecessors have.

The U.S. nuclear program has long stood as a staple of America’s position as a global superpower. So, how do we stay at the front of the pack? Three areas make our country a valuable global resource for nuclear expertise.

Computer Modeling and Simulation

We are seeing the benefits of improved modeling and simulation capabilities through the evaluation of real-time plant response under varying design parameters. Conceptual designs can be analyzed in higher fidelity than before, providing greater insights and information on safety and performance before progressing into engineering, procurement and construction.

These simulations include almost every characteristic of the system, including thermal, mechanical and physics. With this, we can move rapidly from science to engineering, iterating, addressing gaps and improving upon designs. This process helps us remove risks as we continue to move forward with our work. Design and process advancements offer improved efficiency, simplified fuel cycles, increased compactness and reflexive safety.

Verification and Validation

But modeling and simulation is not built on math alone. TerraPower’s collaborative work at national laboratories including Idaho (INL), Oak Ridge (ORNL) and Argonne National Laboratories (ANL) provides test data that help retire risks and support design solutions.

Computational inputs are only as good as the verification and validation data that support them. Testing is needed to provide this data. We understand that experienced staff and partnerships play a critical role in providing and expanding on successful bench scale experiments done in the lab. It’s another benefit that focus on V&V brings – it improves access to unique or limited facilities and resources for continuous quality assurance.

Material Sciences and Testing

Success in materials science represents vast, transformative opportunity. Take NASA’s testing of space materials. These tests have led to amazing breakthroughs in everything from firefighter gear to anti-icing systems used on commercial airplanes.

The testing of nuclear materials is critical to ensuring that reactors can withstand intense conditions for decades. Our partnerships with the University of Michigan, INL and the AREVA have yielded important results in basic material parameters, fuel fabrication and fuel assemblies respectively.

Three areas make the case for advanced nuclear as a national priority

These three processes have allowed for significant progress as we move towards commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors. The advanced safety features of Generation IV reactors are setting the stage for discussion over what these features mean to plant licensing and the surrounding site. Current regulations are based on older technology with an assumption of significant release from core meltdowns. These older generations come with tight restrictions over proximity to large population centers.

With greatly enhanced safety features and advanced designs comes the potential for a decrease in the size of the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ). This potential is incredibly important because energy demand is growing fastest where populations are dense. The mitigation of safety concerns and scalability of the EPZ will allow for commercialization and deployment of advanced nuclear technologies in the regions that need them most.

International Cooperation to Address a Global Demand

Projections by the EIA show that demand for nuclear technologies continues to grow in China, India and other non-OECD countries, while Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya are well on their way to putting the next nuclear reactors in Africa.

Many “newcomer nations” are looking to nuclear energy to satisfy their growing need for baseload power. The World Nuclear Association reports an impressive 45 countries are actively considering nuclear power programs. Aside from governments, private companies and whole industries want a framework for sustainable decarbonization. For sanitation, transportation and agriculture, we need energy solutions that mitigate risk, increase opportunity and expand a marketplace for new nuclear.

The U.S. and advanced nuclear developers have a lot to bring to the table. By fostering international cooperation in nuclear innovation, the U.S. can provide the leadership that is necessary in finding a solution to the global problem of skyrocketing energy demand.