The College of Engineering will continue to play a major role in a $121.5 million collaborative project to develop a virtual nuclear reactor.
The U.S. Department of Energy has committed to renewing a five-year Energy Innovation Hub called the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactor. CASL is led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and U-M is among 10 founding universities, utilities and national laboratories on the project.
The project simulates the physics behind the operational and safety performance of pressurized-water reactors, which make up two-thirds of the current U.S. fleet, while the remaining third are boiling-water reactors.
With CASL’s simulations, engineers aim to improve reactor reliability, reduce operating costs and design better reactors for the future.
The virtual reactor, called the Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications, currently simulates a normally operating reactor. It can model nuclear reactions and the behavior of neutrons in the reactor core, as well as heat and coolant flow.
VERA also simulates chemical reactions that can happen in the reactor and material changes due to radiation. These features enable engineers to make accurate predictions about fuel depletion and corrosion on the fuel rods, for example.
“U-M made key scientific contributions to VERA,” said William Martin, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, who leads the effort at U-M and is head of the Radiation Transport Methods Focus Area for CASL.
The university’s contributions included the state-of-the-art 3-D simulation of neutron behavior, and aspects of the computer model that help researchers predict reactor material wear, corrosion and radiation damage.
With this five-year extension, CASL will further refine these capabilities and extend the simulation to small modular reactors and boiling-water reactors, as well as new advanced reactors that are under construction.
“VERA will have the capability to explore various accident scenarios to assure and enhance reactor safety,” Martin said.
With approximately $8.5 million over five years, U-M will continue to develop the code predicting neutron behavior and refine the simulations of materials, heat flow and coolant flow. CASL’s funding has yet to be approved by congressional appropriations.
“As President Obama made clear during his State of the Union address, reducing carbon pollution and protecting the climate has to be a top priority,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “CASL’s work to help further our understanding of nuclear reactors, improving safety while also making them more efficient, will help the transition to a low carbon economy.”
Additional founding partners of CASL include Westinghouse, Electric Power Research Institute, Tennessee Valley Authority, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, and the Idaho, Los Alamos, and Sandia national laboratories.
First established in 2010, the Energy Innovation Hubs are major integrated research centers, with researchers from many different institutions and technical backgrounds.
They are modeled after the strong scientific management characteristics of the Manhattan Project, Lincoln Lab at MIT that developed radar, AT&T Bell Laboratories that developed the transistor and, more recently, the highly successful Bioenergy Research Centers established during the Bush administration to pioneer advanced techniques in biotechnology, including biofuels.