Experimenting with new designs and operation techniques for nuclear power plants is a tricky business, since even small changes can pose significant safety and financial risks. But the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is funding a major research initiative that will use computer models to develop innovative new approaches to nuclear power that will result in safer, more cost-effective energy – and North Carolina State University is playing a key leadership role in the program.
At issue is the Modeling & Simulation for Nuclear Reactors Energy Innovation Hub, also known as the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), which was announced by DOE May 27. A partnership including universities, national laboratories and industry representatives, CASL will use advanced computer models to explore innovations in nuclear plant engineering and design. DOE will fund CASL at a level of approximately $122 million over five years – with the possibility that the contract will be renewed for an additional five years. NC State is expected to receive approximately $11 million in CASL funding over the next five years.
“Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Los Alamos National Laboratory are both part of CASL and, between them, have the three fastest computers in the world for doing scientific simulations of physical phenomena,” says Dr. Paul Turinsky, CASL’s chief scientist and a professor of nuclear engineering at NC State. “We want to use that computer power to model everything from basic scientific principles to a nuclear power plant to predict the plant’s behavior over time. The overarching goal is to determine how best to design and operate a nuclear power plant to optimize safety and efficiency.” Researchers will be using nuclear reactor data collected and provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Turinsky explains that, working with models, the researchers will be able to try innovative new approaches that couldn’t be tried in the real world because of cost and safety risks. “However,” Turinsky says, “once we’ve used the models to determine which approaches are both safe and represent advances in economy, we can put them in place. The ultimate goal is to lower the cost of energy while meeting all of the existing safety requirements.”
CASL will be led by ORNL, but, as chief scientist, Turinsky has primary responsibility for three of the program’s five focus areas: modeling and mathematics; materials performance and optimization; and validation and uncertainty quantification. Two other NC State faculty also have leadership roles in CASL. Dr. Dan Cacuci will serve as the deputy lead for the validation and uncertainty quantification focus area, while Dr. John Gilligan will serve as chair for the education component of CASL. Turinsky explains that Gilligan will oversee CASL’s efforts to educate future leaders in the industry about CASL’s findings, as well as working with the existing nuclear energy workforce to incorporate developments made under CASL. Both Cacuci and Gilligan are professors of nuclear engineering at NC State.
In all, 11 NC State faculty will be working with CASL, including members of the Department of Nuclear Engineering, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Mathematics. The CASL work will create opportunities for approximately 15 graduate students and five post-doctoral research associates, Turinsky says.
“CASL is fairly unique in the nuclear arena, because universities, national labs and industry are working together very closely,” Turinsky says. “That is possible because we are all excited about transforming the design process used by the nuclear power industry.”