Ann Arbor, Mich. — Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute Faculty Fellow Bill Martin, director of the new University of Michigan branch of a national nuclear research program, said the Japanese reactor crisis could expand the scope of work on the project.
A nuclear engineering and radiological sciences professor, Martin heads the MCASL, the U-M branch of the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL) headquartered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Established in 2010 as part of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation Hub, the 10-institution CASL partnership is creating a virtual reactor for predictive simulation of Light Water Reactors. The Hub will model the complicated phenomena in a nuclear reactor including how materials age in the harsh environment of a nuclear core to offer a better means of assessing how long a reactor can safely operate and determining the changes needed to enable reactors to run longer.
While there are differences between the damaged Japanese reactors and the pressurized water reactors that are the subject of the CASL/MCASL research, Martin said the current crisis could drive new investigations within the consortium of the cladding materials used in fuel rods and the seismic analysis necessary to design and build future plants.
“The work of the CASL is really focused on the phenomena within the reactor, not the associated systems – safety systems, pumps, generators, etc.,” he said. “But these are two areas – advanced fuels and seismic analysis – where we could make contributions.”
On the fuels front, Martin said computational modeling could be used to inform the selection of a small number of advanced cladding materials for use on the outer layer of nuclear fuel rods. Silicon carbide, for example, could replace commonly used zirconium alloy (Zircalloy) cladding. Unlike Zircalloy, the ceramic silicon carbide does not produce hydrogen when reacting with water. A hydrogen build-up has been credited with triggering the recent explosions at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex.
The CASL includes three universities (U-M, MIT and North Carolina State University), four national labs (Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Idaho), a reactor manufacturer (Westinghouse Electric Company), a reactor owner/operator (Tennessee Valley Authority), and the research arm of the nuclear utility industry (Electric Power Research Institute). Its MCASL branch features faculty, Ph.D students, and postdoctoral fellows from four Michigan Engineering departments who are developing advanced computational methods for analysis of coupled nuclear reactor phenomena. These include neutron transport, thermal/hydraulics, and materials performance as well as the validation of these methods against experimental data.
While Martin said he expects the Japan emergency to renew the debate over the safety of nuclear energy, he remains convinced that nuclear power’s relative safety, efficiency and sustainability will continue to keep it among the world’s best sources of energy. As the Japan situation unfolds, Martin and his colleagues in the College of Engineering’s Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences Department address its ramifications, including an explanation of why observers must be careful when comparing the problems in Japan with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Martin said he expects investigation of the Japanese reactors to spawn more research into nuclear energy and safety worldwide. Research and development of future Generation IV plants, he said, will likely be less reliant on engineered systems such as water pumps than on natural physical phenomena (e.g., gravity) to ensure safety even in the midst of natural disaster.
“There will be a lot of people, government agencies and private concerns looking at this to see what went wrong (in Japan), so I’m certain we’ll learn much about plant operations and the design of new plants,” he said. “This is an opportunity to learn…and to improve the safety record, which is actually very admirable in this (U.S.) country. We shouldn’t stop getting better and improving in that area.
“Unless we want to just burn coal or natural gas, we need nuclear power.”
Contact: Paul Gargaro, Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, 734-615-5678, firstname.lastname@example.org