Demonstrating our research simulations in a risk-free environment provided the bridge to game-changing industry applications.
Safely testing a new technology is one of the most formidable challenges facing researchers who work on the design and operation of nuclear reactors. Moving from predictive simulations to experimental validation can be costly, time-consuming, and risky. “No matter how sound the underlying science, you can’t deploy a new technology into a working reactor based solely on computer modeling” explains MIT Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering Michael Short.
Short and MIT colleague Assistant Professor Emilio Baglietto faced just such a dilemma in 2012. The pair were making great progress modeling the negative effects of CRUD (Chalk River Unidentified Deposits) on the performance of light water reactors (LWRs) but lacked the means to demonstrate their predictions under actual conditions. “We knew about Japan’s CRIEPI (Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry) facility—the only one of its kind in the world at that time—where such tests could be run without radiation,” Short says. “But they lacked the funding and the band width to operate such experiments.”
Although Short wasn’t an MIT faculty member at the time, his status as a Principle Investigator (PI) qualified him to apply for the MISTI Hayashi Seed Fund grant. That funding enabled Short and Baglietto to collaborate with CRIEPI scientists Masahiro Furuya and Hirotaka Kawamura to build a new, non-radioactive pressurized water reactor (PWR) loop at MIT. “CRIEPI’s expertise was essential in helping us design the optimal PWR loop for our experiments,” says Short. “We also were able to support continuous interaction between our two teams to add validity to our data.”
CRUD matters because it fouls the cladding on the surface of fuel rods. CRUD accumulation obstructs heat transfer and can cause rods to fail. Fuel rod failure, according to Short, “causes unscheduled outages that would cost a typical 1000MWe power plant approximately $12 per second. With our new MISTI-funded PWR loop, we’ve shown how our fuel surface cladding modification greatly reduces fouling. This approach not only makes reactors run more predictably, it increases efficiency and decreases the radioactivity of fuel rods.”
Because the teams managed to duplicate the conditions in a nuclear reactor without the risk and expense of working with radioactive material, they were able to turn a $30K initial grant into a $4.5 million investment from a nuclear power plant operator. “We’ve demonstrated the validity of our research simulations to the extent that it is safe to deploy in an operating nuclear facility,” Short says. “This breakthrough could transform the nuclear power industry within three years of deployment.”