University receives $3.6M to advance nuclear energy


Four U-M projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Partnerships program aim to make nuclear energy safer and more equitable.

The projects are designed to improve the monitoring of nuclear reactors during operation, explore the safety of an advanced modular reactor design, develop a framework for ethical, consent-based siting of nuclear facilities, and upgrade a facility for modeling radiation damage to reactor components.

Real-time radiation effects on optics

How well could optical sensors monitor future advanced nuclear reactors? Funded with $1 million, Igor Jovanovic, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, will lead a project that seeks to understand how materials used in optical sensors behave in real time when exposed to radiation.

The findings may also improve sensor designs and placement, ensuring safer and more efficient operation of future advanced reactors.

The team will study how radiation affects the transparency and density of materials like glass and sapphire, commonly used in optical sensors. Using gamma rays and neutrons to simulate reactor conditions, they’ll measure how the materials change during irradiation and immediately afterward, focusing on shorter wavelengths important for certain types of sensors.

Gas-cooled fast reactor safety

Can a promising advanced reactor cope with accidents safely? Xiaodong Sun, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, will lead an investigation into the behavior of a helium-gas-cooled fast modular reactor should its normal reactor cooling system malfunction.

Funded with $1.1 million, Sun’s team will construct a test facility to experimentally study how coolant flows during these accident scenarios.

By integrating these experimental results with detailed computer simulations, the researchers aim to develop more accurate computer models to better predict reactor behavior during hypothetical accidents, helping improve the reactor’s design while ensuring safety and reliability.

The reactor that Sun’s team will study — the fast modular reactor being developed by General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, a California-based company — can use fuel more completely and effectively than conventional water-cooled reactors, promising to produce less nuclear waste. The modular design offers more flexible energy generation, likely with lower upfront costs than conventional nuclear power plants.

Community consent in nuclear facility siting

Many Native American tribes have a history of harmful experiences with nuclear projects, as uranium mining and weapons testing have resulted in environmental contamination and related health issues. Aiming to end this pattern, a $1.1 million project will incorporate the perspectives and experiences of these communities into guidelines and tools for consent-based siting of nuclear facilities.

The effort is led by Aditi Verma, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, with critical contributions from Robert Geroux, a political theorist and faculty member in the American Indian Studies Program at Eastern Washington University.

“Dr. Geroux has been collaborating with the University of Michigan team over the last two years to create a living archive of protocols for engagement with tribal communities,” Verma said. “His expertise will be essential in doing this work in a way that centers accountability to our community participants.”

Upgraded facility for studying damage to reactor components

The Michigan Ion Beam Lab can mimic many aspects of the radiation damage that nuclear reactor components experience over time. It matches overall damage by shooting ions of the type found in the material being tested. These atomic “bullets” create the damage experienced in a nuclear reactor.

The lab can also use hydrogen and helium beams to help create bubbles in the material, similar to bubbles formed when neutrons from the fission reaction interact with reactor component materials — an effect known as transmutation.

Funded with $410,000, Kevin Field, associate professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, will lead a project to upgrade the way the lab generates and measures helium damage at high temperatures, enabling the facility to mimic more reactor types.


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