Category Archives: National Laboratories

Nuclear Matinee: Scientists announce nuclear fusion breakthrough

Researchers at the National Ignition Facility in California announced this week that they had achieved a major milestone on the path toward nuclear fusion as an energy source, as described in a paper published in the science journal Nature. For the first time, the energy produced in a nuclear fusion reaction in a confined hydrogen fuel exceeded the energy put in to start the reaction.  Science reporter Gautam Naik explains at the Wall Street Journal:

Much work remains before the process, in theory, reaches the point of “ignition” in which a fusion reaction continues on its own and is self-sustaining. See Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s report on the breakthrough, and interviews with some of the scientists involved at the Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal.

Great science, breathtaking engineering, and a landmark achievement with the exciting prospect of continued progress and unforeseen future benefits along the way. The promise of massively abundant energy without pollution, radioactive waste, or greenhouse gases seems closer. And as James Conca suggests at Forbes… is it also already here?

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Thanks to the WSJ Digital Network.

Realistic look at Small Modular Reactors in Idaho

By Rod Adams

From October 30 through November 1, 2013, a group of about 150 people with questioning attitudes about small, modular reactors (SMRs) met in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  They were treated to a number of presentations that described the technical progress that has been made so far and also provided a realistic, sobering look at the long, challenging development path that must be traversed to allow the technology to begin contributing to the world’s energy security.

A wide variety of organizations sponsored the meeting; there were reactor vendors, several supplier companies, and a couple of focused development organizations from Missouri.  (Come to think of it, the active involvement from the “Show Me” state might have had something to do with the fact that the meeting addressed a lot of hard questions with open-ended answers rather than being dominated by optimistic sales pitches.)

Though the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was not a conference sponsor, it was an active participant.  On the first day of the event, the Lab provided a tour of several of its historical and operating facilities, including the EBR-I, the Advanced Test Reactor, and the Hot Fuels Examination Facility.

smr tour inside ebr 1 control room - first nuclear power plant to generate electricity, in 1951

SMR tour in the EBR-1 control room – first nuclear reactor to generate electricity, in 1951

First devices powered by electricity from nuclear were four 200-watt light bulbs

First devices powered by electricity from nuclear were four 200-watt light bulbs

The INL facilities tour also included several in-town labs in Idaho Falls that perform research that does not require the isolation of INL’s desert facilities.  One of the most impressive facilities on that tour was the Human Systems Simulation Laboratory (HSSL).  It is a fully reconfigurable, digital representation of a nuclear power plant control room with impressive fidelity.

According to the technicians supporting the tour, it is possible to shift the HSSL from one plant’s control room to another in approximately 30 minutes.  As a national lab, INL has been able to develop agreements and relationships with a number of different simulator vendors and utilities.  INL is a trusted agent that has shown that it can help distribute important operating experience that should be shared and protect intellectual property that should not be shared.

Our tour guides “took the fifth” with a chuckle on a question about the ability of the HSSL system to display commercial high-definition TV (there was a World Series game scheduled on the day of our visit).

John Grossenbacher, the Director of the Idaho National Laboratory, gave a talk that identified several important contributions that the national labs, his own in particular, can make to the development of small modular reactor technology.  He reminded the attendees that there is plenty of space within the 860 square miles of lab property to site first-of-a-kind reactors if needed.  Several INL scientists participated in the conference, including Dr. Piyush Sabharwall, who was recently featured in an ANS Nuclear Cafe post about his selection as the 2013 Young Member Excellence Award recipient.

Jeff Sayer, the Director of the Idaho Department of Commerce and Chairman of the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission 2.0, served as the master of ceremonies for the conference.  Throughout the event, he reiterated his home state’s long history in nuclear energy development, its record of having been the site for more than 50 first-of-a-kind small reactors, and its interest in continued involvement in nuclear energy development.

Brad Little, the Lieutenant Governor of Idaho, provided a luncheon address that reinforced what Mr. Sayer had been telling us.  Unlike many politicians when invited to a technical conference, he attended the entire day’s sessions and incorporated some of what he heard in the morning in his enthusiastic and engaging talk.

Based on the number of references by other speakers after she gave her talk, Andrea Jennetta, the publisher of Fuel Cycle Week, certainly made a lasting impression.  Her talk was titled “Industry Observer, Provocateur – Uranium Saves Lives… And Other Shocking Truths about the Science and Politics of Nuclear Power.”  Among her many memorable points was an admonition to nuclear technology promoters to remember that there is “no ‘R’ in safe.”  That is, she asked people to stop trying to sell their systems based on the idea that they are “safer” than the existing systems – that have not exposed anyone to dangerous radiation doses in 50 years.

Aside:  Jennetta has several more people to convince, including the NRC and the scientists that recently wrote a pronuclear letter titled To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear PowerEnd Aside.

She also made the bold statement that nuclear energy’s ONLY obstacle was POLITICS.  Several later speakers stated that they believed that economics was an equally important obstacle, but Andrea insisted that most of the most difficult economic challenges have been imposed by political processes.

Paul Genoa, Senior Director of Policy Development for the Nuclear Energy Institute, described the importance of improving the dysfunctional markets that have resulted in the recent decision to close two, relatively small, existing reactors.  He agreed with many of the motivations for building smaller, simpler, factory-produced power plants, while also offering a warning that there might not be a market if we all do not work together.  He recommended action to fix the way that existing market rules place little or no monetary value on important characteristics like voltage support, steady baseload, and ultra low emissions, all of which are strengths of nuclear energy.

Finis Southwirth, the Chief Technical Officer for AREVA, described his company’s expertise in supplying a wide variety of nuclear fuel for existing power plants and offered the somewhat surprising fact that qualifying a slightly modified light water reactor fuel might cost $100 to $200 million, while qualifying a brand new fuel for a different kind of coolant might require $1 billion and at least 10-15 years worth of lead time.  That explains why all of the SMR projects that are planning to have commercial offerings before 2025 are light water reactors using only slightly modified fuel.

Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) had three representatives at the event.  Bob Granata, Vice President, Operations and Technology Development, informed the power plant vendors that shipbuilders have been manufacturing and assembling modular nuclear systems for many years.  He described how the current process for building Virginia class submarines has some modules of the ship being made by Electric Boat Company in New England and others being manufactured by NNS in Virginia.  The key to the program’s success is design and processes that ensure that those modules fit together.  The shipyard is ready for orders to “bend metal” whenever the vendors have finished their designs and found power plant customers.

Mike McGough, Chief Commercial Officer of NuScale Power, described his company’s history and unique technology.  The NuScale concept of building a 540 MWe power plant from a collection of twelve identical, independently contained, natural circulation 45 MWe reactors, each with its own power turbine is quite different from any of the other proposed systems.  As McGough reminded everyone, NuScale opened up its initial licensing dialog with the NRC in 2008.  McGough claimed to have been happy that NuScale was later joined in the race to commercialization by B&W and Westinghouse as they each recognized the potential value of the smaller reactor market.

Throughout the event, it was apparent that the state of Missouri is very interested in the potential of SMRs as a statewide development effort.  It was difficult to join any small group conversation without it including someone from a Missouri organization; there were representatives there from the state economic development office, from several universities, from Ameren, and from several potential suppliers.

Missouri has formed a strong, bipartisan coalition with those groups plus support from a Republican legislature, a Democratic governor, and the public power cooperatives.  The state has selected Westinghouse as its partnering vendor; everyone I talked to is eagerly awaiting the announcement of the selection for the second Department of Energy SMR Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), believing they have made a very strong case.

One of the best things about the event was the opportunity to engage in frank discussions with experienced people who understand that major new developments do not happen quickly in the nuclear energy industry, but who also understand the importance of making steady progress.  The vendors all acknowledged that their systems will be tough sells in the US under conditions of current natural gas prices, but a number of attendees reminded everyone that no one really knows what natural gas prices will be in the 2022 to 2025 time frame when the first SMRs will begin commercial operations.  Even more importantly, no one knows what the prices will be during an SMR’s 60-year lifetime.

As some speakers pointed out, natural gas prices in Europe, parts of South America, and the Far East are already high enough to encourage a reasonably high level of excitement about SMR development.  With ongoing concern about climate change, it is always worthwhile to invest in a zero emission power source that can compete with methane (aka natural gas).  That fuel’s climate-related boast is that it is… only half as dirty as coal.

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Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Nuclear Matinee: Ask Dr. Dave Grabaskas, Argonne Nuclear Engineer

At the birthplace of nuclear energy, one man dares to answer all questions nuclear – Dr. Dave Grabaskas of Argonne National Laboratory.

Have a question for nuclear engineer Dr. Dave Grabaskas?  Leave it in the video’s comment section for a chance to have it answered in a follow-up video. You can also submit a question via email.

Thanks to Dr. Dave Grabaskas and thanks to Argonne National Laboratory

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A tour of EBR-I: Birthplace of nuclear energy

Don Miley, tour guide at Idaho National Laboratory, takes viewers of this video on a trip to the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I). In 1951, the first electricity from nuclear power was generated at EBR-I—using a reactor that actually bred more fuel than it consumed, using an all-plutonium core.

EBR-I paved the path for nuclear energy worldwide.

Looking for a unique and educational summer travel destination? The EBR-I National Historic Landmark is open to the public in the summer and to scheduled groups year-round

EBR-I Atomic Museum brochure

Thanks to Idaho National Laboratory

Virginia ANS section discovers hidden asset – Clay Condit

By Rod Adams

On January 31, 2013, about 30 lucky members of the Virginia section of the American Nuclear Society heard a series of informative tales from one of the many innovative pioneers of the First Atomic Age. Clay Condit, a man overflowing with personal memories of important nuclear energy milestones—like the initial start-up of the Submarine Thermal Reactor and the post accident analysis of the SL-1 tragedy—entertained the assembled members for a little more than an hour.

Clay retired from Westinghouse in 1992 after a 40-year long career in nuclear reactor physics and reactor operations. He spent most of that time at the 900-square-mile piece of the Idaho desert currently known as the Idaho National Laboratory. That site has been the home of 52 nuclear reactors.

Some of those reactors were carefully designed and maintained facilities used to develop new fuel materials, test new operational concepts, and/or train sailors for the US Navy. The Materials Test Rector (MTR), the Submarine Thermal Reactor (STR), the A1W prototypes for the USS Enterprise, and the Advanced Test Reactor fell into that category. Those facilities have provided decades of useful service, provided important practical training for more than 40,000 sailors, and have enabled such technological improvements as submarine reactor fuel designs that now last for the 33-year-long life of the ship instead of the two-year life achieved by the first core of the USS Nautilus.

Some of the other reactors built at INL—like the Integral Fast Reactor that evolved from the Experimental Breeder Reactor II—were also well-designed and maintained facilities that point the way to a reliable source of inexhaustible clean energy.

However, some of reactors built at the National Reactor Testing Station (one of INL’s former names) were rapid prototypes that were built quickly to test innovative concepts, some of which did not work out as well as the designers had hoped. As Clay explained, in the early days of the facility, there were two primary rules. First of all, any new project needed to pick a location that was at least five miles from any existing facility; secondly, the operators of any test reactor were required to notify the local sheriff to divert traffic on the through roads whenever they were conducting testing that might result in the release of any radioactive material.

From Clay’s point of view, the ability to move quickly and develop conceptual designs into operating machinery with few restrictions within the facility played an important role in the rapid improvement in nuclear energy technology. He stated that we need to find a way to reinvigorate nuclear technology development by reusing some of our existing assets of open spaces and readily available human resources.

After his retirement, Clay started devoting a major portion of his time to capturing and sharing knowledge about Idaho’s importance in the development of nuclear energy. He was instrumental in convincing the US Navy to donate the sail of the USS Hawkbill (SSN 666) to the town of Arco (the first community in the world ever to be lit by electricity generated by nuclear power), Idaho,  so that it could serve as the cornerstone of the Idaho Science Center. Clay is the founder, president, and primary tour guide of that facility, and he has been working for about a decade with other Arco boosters and INL veterans to create a destination where artifacts and stories about nuclear energy development at INL can be preserved and shared.

Talks like the one that Clay gave might be common for chapters that are near the national labs, but it was a unique experience for many of the Virginia section attendees, especially those who have never had the chance to attend ANS national meetings. Fortunately for us, Clay winters in Richmond; I hope we can convince him to be a more regular attendee at our meetings.

For show and tell, Clay brought a collection of artifacts and handouts, including a copy of a book titled Proving the Principle – A History of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory 1949-1999. I highly recommend reading the online version of that book; it provides a fascinating look at the history of a dynamic facility peopled by thinkers whose achievements were often shrouded in secrecy.

I’ve read Proving the Principle, but Clay’s talk added depth and personalized some of the events. One of the real benefits of participating in local ANS sections is the opportunity to hear interesting stories from people with real world experiences that may never again be repeated.

Of course, speakers are not the only reason to attend ANS local section meetings; it is also good to swap stories with other people who share some of the joys and challenges of working in our profession.

There was a little bit of depressing news broken at the meeting. On January 31, the day that we met, local news sources reported that Virginia state Senator John Watkins withdrew his bill to end the existing moratorium on uranium mining. The diverse coalition that has formed to halt the development of one of the largest known deposits in the United States has—so far—successfully convinced political decision makers that uranium mining entails too much risk and too little reward. There has been a well-orchestrated campaign of misinformation that has not been effectively addressed by people who understand the minuscule level of public risk associated with properly regulated, modern uranium mines and the substantial rewards that can come from developing valuable fuel sources.

There is a glimmer of hope that Virginia’s governor will use his authority to allow state regulators to begin drafting rules so that legislators will be able to make more informed decisions about the protections those regulations will provide to local populations. I hope that the governor pays attention to the careful work that has already been done to address the scientific questions. He should recognize that a deposit of material that could provide 20 percent of the United States with emission-free electricity for more than 2 years is worth developing. Perhaps it will help if more people who understand the technology find their voices and begin more forcefully communicating accurate information.

Governor McDonnell believes that Virginia should become the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”. That is a worthy goal that will be easier to reach by expanding our already substantial nuclear energy competence to include mining the required fuel material.

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Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Nuclear Film Extravaganza

by Will Davis

Friday’s “Nuclear Matinée” feature here at ANS Nuclear Cafe is a four-film cavalcade of documentaries about nuclear energy. One of these films premiered on January 18, while another has just been released. The other two have been around a while but are well worth viewing and make a good supplement to the two new films. Here is a rundown on each of the four films:

PANDORA’S PROMISE, director Robert Stone’s documentary about the realities of nuclear energy and climate change, opened on Friday, January 18, for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. Stone is well known in the field of documentaries concerning things nuclear; his award-winning “Radio Bikini,” a film that this writer saw when it was still fairly new, covered effects of nuclear weapons testing and was decidedly from Stone’s anti-nuclear period. As Stone continued to pursue his environmental interests he came to realize that the anti-nuclear movement was incalculably disavowing the single energy source that could provide power around the clock with no GHG emissions. From his own site, we find his revelatory moment to be that when he realized just how little waste is generated from nuclear energy—even high-level waste.

You can view a teaser for Pandora’s Promise by clicking here.

I will add that the timing of the first showing of this movie comes at what increasingly appears to be a significant moment both for the pro-nuclear advocacy world and the environmentalist world, as an article by Keith Kloor has taken the social media world by storm and continues to get coverage and has even been mirrored on Mother Jones. As to Robert Stone in an interesting parallel, his story seems in some ways to recall the journey of Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, who became pro-nuclear after being anti-nuclear.

ONCE UPON A NUCLEAR SHIP—The N.S. Savannah Documentary. Thomas Michael Conner/TCS Communications 2012. One hour 5 minutes.

Thomas Michael Conner’s new documentary, available for purchase as a DVD or as a web download, covers the history of the only nuclear-powered commercial ship ever built in the United States, from the laying of the keel of the ship through 2006 when the ship was moved out of the James River Reserve Fleet for preservation. The real value of this documentary lies in the fact that it is entirely first-hand; Conner, himself a health physicist on the Savannah for several years, has rounded up a number of veterans of the ship’s crew and allowed them lots of time to tell the ship’s history and a number of what sailors and we Navy veterans call “sea stories.” Unlike Pandora’s Promise, which has only been seen in a snippet or two in advance of its first play today, I’ve seen this movie in its entirety and enjoyed every minute of it. This is a good film for anyone interested in the N.S. Savannah—but more than that, for those who have studied the ship, its design and its history (and thus are those people who “have everything” on the ship) this film is significant. The film runs just over one hour—and that hour goes by pretty quickly. You can find the website for this film by clicking here—and there is a trailer for the movie that auto-plays.

I have recently watched two other presentations that aren’t exactly brand new, but that I highly recommend in this week of new documentaries as excellent additions if you haven’t already seen them.

POWERING AMERICA—A Film About Nuclear Energy. The Heritage Foundation/Coldwater Media 2012. 40 minutes. This film is a brief but information-packed presentation on nuclear energy and our energy needs. The producers of this film directly address pressing questions—and investigate nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl frankly and clearly. The film addresses competing forms of energy and shows that nuclear is the “round the clock” answer that renewables aren’t. The presentation is professional, well narrated, and well paced. After watching the film, I was left very impressed by its polish and was surprised to find it had only been about three quarters of an hour; the amount and quality of information presented was so rich that I thought surely more time had passed. We meet a number of nuclear professionals and plant operators as well as those who live and work near nuclear plants, enter nuclear power plant sites and control room simulators, and even a uranium mine in operation—right down to the deepest depths. This is a great background film to support the present wave of pro-nuclear environmentalism—and I give it five stars for its frankness. Click here to see the site for this film.

People, Passion & Purpose—A Laboratory Overview. Idaho National Laboratory. Nine minutes 10 seconds. This brief but excellent film covers some of the unseen operations of what formerly was thought of primarily as a research and testing facility for nuclear reactors—the Idaho National Laboratory. In light of the recent pro-nuclear environmentalist movement, and coupled with the film above from Heritage on nuclear energy, this overview gives the viewer a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at real, front line research at one of America’s most important installations. It’s said that the science fiction of yesterday becomes the science of today and the technology of tomorrow, and lots of that has actually happened at INL over the decades. The film is available for viewing free at the INL film site which is found here—although I received a mini disc copy (as well as Powering America on DVD) at the ANS Nuclear Technology Expo held concurrent with the 2012 ANS Annual Meeting in Chicago.

That’s it! Four films well worth watching, in my opinion—and only one of which we need wait to see.

(NS Savannah illustration from Will Davis collection.)

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Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, Davis is on the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

 

Nuclear Cafe Matinee: Nuclear Recycling in 4 Minutes

The 800 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced by the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States each year – all while emitting no greenhouse gases — is by far America’s biggest source of green energy.  And this abundant energy source can become even greener by recycling used nuclear fuel.

Currently, only about five percent of the uranium in a nuclear fuel rod gets fissioned for energy; after that, the rods are taken out of the reactor and put into storage. There is a way, however, to use almost all of the uranium in a fuel rod. Recycling the uranium in used nuclear fuel could power the United States for a thousand years, just by using the uranium we’ve already mined, and all of this energy carbon-free.

This excellent short video from Argonne National Laboratory explains how.

And now… you too can regale your friends and others at holiday parties with pontifications about pyroprocessing!

Thanks to Argonne National Laboratory, and for more information visit Argonne Nuclear Energy.

ANS Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space (NETS 2013) Topical Meeting

The 2013 ANS Topical Meeting on Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space (NETS 2013) will be held February 25–28, 2013, at the Albuquerque Marriott in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

NETS serves as a major communications network and forum for professionals and students working in the area of space nuclear technology. The NETS meeting facilitates the exchange of information among research and management personnel from international government, industry, academia, and the national laboratory systems.

NETS 2013 will address topics ranging from overviews of current space programs to methods of meeting the challenges of future space endeavors, with a focus on nuclear technologies and applications.  See the NETS program page for meeting tracks and topics.

NETS 2013 is hosted by the Aerospace Nuclear Science and Technology Division (ANSTD) of the American Nuclear Society with co-sponsors Aerojet and the ANS Trinity Local Section.

Register Now

Hotel Reservations

See the Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space meeting page for much more information. We hope to see you in Albuquerque.

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A Weekend of Nuclear History

By Will Davis

The weekend of December 1–2, 2012, sees three events of note relative to the history of nuclear energy.

 

Saturday, December 1, saw the Inactivation Ceremony for USS Enterprise, CVN-65, which was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ever built and by far the oldest nuclear-powered ship in service. (USS Nautilus, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, and the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin preceded Enterprise into service, as did the cruiser USS Long Beach.) The USS Enterprise was launched on September 24, 1960 (view of launching seen above, at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock), and commissioned into service November 25, 1961. The ship was deactivated just past her 51st birthday. Much more information about the ship, which will be defueled and eventually dismantled, can be found at the official USS Enterprise website.

During the ceremony, the Secretary of the Navy revealed that the name Enterprise will live on in Navy history; the third Gerald R. Ford class nuclear-powered carrier will be CVN-80, USS Enterprise. Instead of eight A2W reactors as installed in CVN-65, CVN-80 will have two A1B reactors with a total power higher than that of the two A4W reactors installed in the Nimitz (CVN-68) class nuclear-powered carriers that followed the first nuclear USS Enterprise.

Sunday, December 2, marks the 70th anniversary of the first criticality of the first nuclear reactor ever built: Enrico Fermi’s “Atomic Pile,” known as CP-1 or “Chicago Pile 1,” achieved criticality  at 3:53 PM, December 2, 1942. The pile, according to “The Atomic Energy Deskbook,” Hogerton, 1963, contained 385 tons of graphite to act as the moderator. Hogerton relates the fact that when the pile was constructed, “only 6 tons of uranium metal were available and it was necessary to complete the assembly with 34 tons of uranium oxide.” The pile was built in layers of blocks of graphite and fuel, eventually 57 layers deep. According to Hogerton, “Critical conditions were achieved somewhat sooner than anticipated, so that the reactor assembly, which had been expected to be spherical, took the shape of an obloid spheroid somewhat flattened at the top.”

Argonne National Laboratory, under whose auspices the original CP-1 was built, has excellent resources on this famous anniversary. The Argonne page on the 70th anniversary gives background and perspective, while “The Dawn of the Nuclear Age” includes a video featuring two early nuclear pioneers, Dr. Harold Agnew and Dr. Len Koch. Agnew was one of the 49 persons present when the CP-1 achieved criticality in 1942.

December also marks a third anniversary: the Shippingport Atomic Power Station achieved its first criticality, and also later achieved full rated power, in December 1957. Shippingport was the first commercial nuclear generating station ordered in the United States, and it was the nation’s first large-scale nuclear power plant to generate electricity for civilian purposes.

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Will Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W reactor plants.  Davis performs Social Media services for ANS under contract, writes for ANS Nuclear Cafe as well as for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own Atomic Power Review blog.

ANS Nuclear Cafe Matinee: DUFF Space Nuclear Reactor Prototype

A joint Department of Energy and NASA team has demonstrated a simple, robust fission reactor prototype [note: see Comments for more accurate and complete description] intended for development for future space exploration missions. The DUFF (Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions) experiment represents the first demonstration in the United State—since 1965—of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity.

The uranium–powered reactor is the first use of a “heat pipe” to cool a small  nuclear reactor (measuring one foot!) and power a Stirling engine. The following short video from Los Alamos National Laboratory explains the hows and whys:

See this article from Los Alamos on the details of the DUFF experiment recently successfully conducted.  Also, see this CNN article for an excellent description.

Many future space missions will only be feasible with the use of reliable and safe nuclear energy, and this proof-of-concept is a steppingstone toward that future.

 

The MTR—Gone now, but not forgotten

by Will Davis

Recently, Dr. Nicole Stricker of the Idaho National Laboratory sent a link for the following video to members of the ANS Social Media list.

INL Waste Video

The entire video is quite interesting, but my interest was tweaked during the time frame 3:23 to 3:28 in the video by what looked like a reactor vessel being tipped over during decommissioning of a nuclear facility; the voice-over at the time is talking about just that. A request for information revealed that the reactor shown at that moment in the video was the Materials Testing Reactor, or MTR.

I had known that the MTR had been long shut down, but was really unaware of its present status. The MTR has a place in nuclear history in the United States as the first widely available test reactor; according to The Atomic Energy Deskbook, the MTR was designed jointly by Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratories.  Blaw-Knox acted as architect-engineer, and the plant was built by the Fluor Corporation.

Let’s let the words of Phillips Petroleum Company, which operated the MTR for the Atomic Energy Commission, describe the facility; they’re found in the booklet (in my collection) whose cover is reproduced below.

“The Materials Testing Reactor is a unique and versatile research tool. It was designed and constructed as a pioneering step in the development of high neutron intensity reactors with the primary purpose of providing facilities to test the effects of neutron bombardment on materials of interest in future reactor construction. It has neutron fluxes 10 to 100 times greater than those in other reactors. As a result, it can provide radiation at a very high dose rate and produce isotopes with higher specific activity than those now available from other sources.

The MTR is a thermal (slow) neutron reactor using uranium enriched in isotope U235 as fuel, ordinary water as both moderator and coolant, and beryllium as the reflector. It is designed to generate the heat equivalent of 30,000 kilowatts.  Because of its high specific power, average neutron fluxes of 2 X 10^14 thermal neutrons per square centimeter per second and 5 X 10^13 fast neutrons per square centimeter per second are available. Peak thermal neutron fluxes of 5 X 10^14 neutrons per square centimeter per second exist in certain positions in the reactor.

The enriched uranium fuel is contained in an active core which is inside a lattice region 40 by 70 centimeters in area and 60 centimeters high (16 x 28 x 24 inches). It is surrounded by a 40 inch high reflector of beryllium pieces. Both lattice and reflector are enclosed in a 55 inch diameter aluminum tank which is extended by stainless steel sections above and below to form a 30 foot deep well which is closed top and bottom with heavy lead filled steel plugs.  ….The reactor lattice and beryllium reflector are cooled by water flowing at a rate of 20,000 gallons per minute. This water enters near the top of the well at 100F and leaves near the bottom at 111F. The water is fed by gravity from a 170 foot high tank through the reactor tank to a vacuum spray evaporator system for cooling and degassing, then is pumped back to the tank.”

According to contemporary documents from Sylvania-Corning Nuclear Corporation in my collection, fuel elements for the MTR were “93% enriched uranium alloyed with aluminum, clad in aluminum, and formed into curved plates approximately 24″ long, 3″ wide and 1/16″ thick. The fuel element consists of nineteen such plates brazed into aluminum side plates to form a boxlike assembly approximately 3″ x 3″ in cross-section. Aluminum adaptors are welded to the ends of the fuel element. Each element contains 200 grams of U235 and normally 25 such elements fuel the reactor.”

In addition to offering irradiation services directly using the reactor, the MTR also offered gamma irradiation using spent fuel as described below by Phillips Petroleum:

“The gamma field is provided by used MTR fuel elements, which are stored under water until they have cooled sufficiently to be transferred to the chemical processing plant for recovery of U235.” At left, the original MTR canal where gamma irradiation was performed, which offered, according to Phillips, gamma fields up to 10^7 roentgens per hour.

The MTR first began operating in 1952—although, according to the excellent “Proving the Principle” (Susan M. Stacy/Idaho Operations Office of the Department of Energy, 2000), the plans were started for what became the MTR as early as 1944. The MTR, when placed in operation, quickly found itself with a list of experiments to perform and samples to irradiate. According to documentation provided by Erik Simpson, CWI media spokesman, the MTR performed over 15,000 irradiation experiments during its operational lifetime.

The MTR operated successfully as one of the most highly in – demand test reactors for many years. Time caught up to the MTR in 1970; according to “Proving the Principle,” the final experimental plutonium core (nicknamed “Phoenix”) was operated in the reactor through April 23, 1970, when the reactor was shut down. One final experiment in August 1970 saw the MTR go critical again for 48 hours when Aerojet, by then the MTR contractor, started it up for paid research into mercury contamination of wildlife. But that was it. The reactor never operated again.

The reactor was defueled, and parts of the facility were used for other purposes (some functions even going on next to the shutdown reactor itself without involving it) for some years until the DOE made the decision in 2005 to dispose of the facility. Erik Simpson has provided us with a copy of the 2007 Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis for the Materials Test Reactor End-State and Vessel Disposal; of the various site solutions described in this document, the one chosen and carried out is the one that called for removal of the above grade structure, the reactor vessel, and below-grade structure with the vessel being stabilized and stored onsite at a dedicated facility.

Erik provides us with two fascinating links that show much more than we saw in the opening video of the decommissioning of the MTR facility. In the first video link, we see a number of activities of the Idaho Cleanup Project; the MTR facility is seen in this video at the time frame 1:15 – 2:30. The second video link gives us a mostly time-lapse view of the demolition of the MTR reactor building (with the large internal shielding and beam tube/sample tube complex, as well as reactor vessel and tank extensions already gone), but slows to real-time to display the explosive demolition of the roof structure.

It goes without saying that in terms of the overall site, many reactor facilities have been remediated, or placed in some level of storage, or will be remediated. Dr. Stricker points out that the former NRTS site, now called the Idaho National Laboratory site, has housed 52 different reactors.

As related in “Proving the Principle,” there were serious last-minute attempts to revitalize the MTR with new projects and new money, but this wasn’t enough to prevent its  shutdown; designation of the MTR as a “historical Signature Property as designated by DOE Headquarters Advisory Council on Historic Preservation” (as related in the disposal analysis) wasn’t enough even to keep the building. We’ve at least put a marker for the MTR and all those who worked on, or at, the facility on the ANS Nuclear Cafe blog with this post, and noted its passing.

(Photo at top courtesy Idaho National Laboratory, via Dr. Nicole Stricker. Video links courtesy Erik Simpson.  MTR brochure photos, Will Davis collection.)

Additional resources

For more information, please visit Argonne National Laboratory’s Basic and Applied Science Research Reactors website—click HERE to open the the page dedicated to the MTR.

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Friday Matinee: Idaho National Laboratory’s CAVE

Idaho National Laboratory‘s Computer Assisted Virtual Environment (CAVE) at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies allows scientists and engineers to literally walk into their data and examine it.

Users can tour a building still under design, plot a new transmission route over terrain, open a valve, or… delve into the core of a nuclear reactor.

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ANS Technology of Fusion Energy Conference (TOFE-2012) – August 27-31

Realizing New Technologies for the Age of Fusion Energy

The 20th ANS Topical Meeting on the Technology of Fusion Energy, TOFE-2012, will be held August 27–31, 2012, at the 4-star Hutton Hotel in Nashville, Tenn. The TOFE meeting provides a forum for sharing the exciting progress made in fusion research, as well as presenting future plans for national and worldwide fusion programs.

The meeting’s early registration deadline is August 3, as is the deeply discounted hotel reservation deadline.

See the TOFE-2012 website for more information, including:

  • Preliminary Technical Program
  • Schedule of Events (including the “Grand Ole Opry,” and Oak Ridge National Laboratory technical tour)
  • Sponsors
  • Exhibitors Information
  • Papers and Posters Information
  • Registration

And more…  We hope to see you in Nashville!

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ANS Friday Nuclear Matinee: The First Nuclear Chain Reaction

Very highly recommended. On December 2, 1942, 49 scientists, led by Enrico Fermi, made history when Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) went “critical” and produced the world’s first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction.

Seventy years later, two of the last surviving CP-1 pioneers, Harold Agnew and Warren Nyer, recall and explain the events of that historic day.

Of course, nuclear chain reactions power the Sun and stars, and Earth had its own nuclear chain reactions long before humans achieved the controlled version – so some license is taken with the title of this post.

ANS’s Mark Peters testifies to Congress on recycling used nuclear fuel

On  Wednesday, June 6, Dr. Mark T. Peters appeared on behalf  of the American Nuclear Society before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.  Peters is the Deputy Laboratory Director for Programs at Argonne National Laboratory and testified at the invitation of the subcommittee.

The  hearing is titled “What’s Next for the U.S. – Korea Alliance.” Additional information, including all prepared testimony,  is available via the Committee website. Peters’ prepared testimony is below and can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking HERE.

 Recycling Used Nuclear Fuel: Balancing Energy and Waste Management Policies

Testimony to U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

Mark T. Peters, American Nuclear Society
June 6, 2012

My name is Mark Peters, and I am the Deputy Laboratory Director for Programs at Argonne National Laboratory. However, today I am speaking on behalf of the American Nuclear Society; my remarks should not be considered as an official statement from Argonne or the Department of Energy.

Peters

I appreciate this opportunity to present the views of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) on used nuclear fuel recycling as a means to achieve an integrated solution to energy and waste management policy. The ANS is a not-for-profit, international, scientific, and educational organization with nearly 12,000 members worldwide. The core purpose of ANS is to promote awareness and understanding of the application of nuclear science and technology. The ANS also wishes to acknowledge its longstanding professional collaboration with the Korean Nuclear Society (KNS). For more than 40 years, our two organizations have worked together to promote the safe and secure use of nuclear technology and materials.

For decades, the United States has grappled with the multiple challenges of crafting a long-term solution for the management of used nuclear fuel. These persistent challenges have taken on new urgency in the wake of the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which has focused international attention on used nuclear fuel storage. Although the challenges of waste management require close scrutiny, these issues are most effectively considered within the context of an integrated policy for nuclear energy and nuclear waste management. Unfortunately, the United States is unique in its lack of such an integrated policy. Most other nations that rely on nuclear energy, including France, Russia, China, Japan, and Republic of Korea, have policies in place that promote development of used fuel recycling and advanced fast reactors, in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of their nuclear investments. We must consider our nuclear energy technology collaborations and partnerships within this global context.

At present, the United States’ strategic investments in advanced nuclear energy technologies are lagging; as a result, we rely increasingly on collaborative arrangements with foreign research institutions to conduct research in these areas. These collaborations provide advantages to both parties, and the United States has benefited from them. However, close alignment between government and nuclear industries in these nations speeds the international deployment of these cooperatively developed technologies, such as used fuel recycling and fast reactor technologies, while the United States has moved much more slowly in its adoption of them.

The Republic of Korea has publicly expressed its interest in incorporating electro-metallurgical reprocessing technology, commonly known as “pyroprocessing,” into its long-term nuclear fuel cycle plans. Pyroprocessing offers several potential benefits over current aqueous recycling techniques, such as the PUREX process being used in France and Japan today. These include the ability to recover minor actinides, which otherwise contribute significantly to the long-term radiotoxicity of used nuclear fuel; fewer releases of fission gases and tritium; and, the lack of production of pure plutonium, which helps to address proliferation concerns. Clearly, there will be engineering challenges inherent in the development of pyroprocessing technology, as there are with any other advanced manufacturing processes. However, these challenges can be addressed through joint research and development activities, and solving these challenges will have important implications for the United States as well as the Republic of Korea.

The American Nuclear Society believes that nuclear fuel recycling has the potential to reclaim much of the residual energy in used fuel currently in storage as well as used fuel that will be produced in the future, and that recycling offers a proven alternative to direct disposal of used fuel in a geological repository. In other nations, recycling of nuclear fuel with proper safeguards and material controls, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has demonstrated that high-level waste volumes can be reduced safely and securely while improving the sustainability of energy resources.

It is the opinion of the ANS that the United States should begin planning a thoughtful and orderly transition to nuclear fuel recycling in parallel with the development of a geologic repository. Recycling would enhance the repository’s efficiency, eliminating the need for most complex and expensive engineered barriers and reducing the timeframe of concern from more than 100,000 years to a few hundred years.

The ANS also believes that the United States should accelerate development of fast spectrum reactors, which are uniquely capable of generating energy while consuming long-lived waste. Six decades ago, on December 20, 1951, scientists and engineers from Argonne National Laboratory started a small electrical power generator attached to an experimental fast reactor, creating enough energy to power four 200-watt electrical bulbs. That historic achievement demonstrated the peaceful use of nuclear energy and launched today’s global commercial nuclear energy industry. But it should not be overlooked that the first electricity generated through nuclear energy was produced using a fast reactor.

In closing, let me reiterate that the ANS believes that nuclear energy has a significant role to play in meeting the global energy demands of the 21st century, and that a global expansion of nuclear energy can be achieved safely and securely. I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

BACKGROUND

Current Recycling Technologies

PUREX: Current commercial used nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies are based on the PUREX process, a solvent extraction process that separates uranium and plutonium and directs the remaining minor actinides (neptunium, americium, and curium) along with all of the fission products to vitrified waste. The PUREX process has more than 50 years of operational experience. For example, the La Hague reprocessing facility in France treats used fuel from domestic and foreign power reactors. The plutonium recovered is recycled as a mixed-oxide fuel to generate additional electricity. This technology also is used for commercial applications in the United Kingdom and Japan.

There are a number of drawbacks to the PUREX process. PUREX does not recover the minor actinides (neptunium, americium, curium, and heavier actinide elements), which compose a significant fraction of the long-term radiotoxicity of used fuel. Advanced fast reactors can transmute and consume minor actinides if they are separated from other fission product elements, but incorporation of minor actinide separations into existing PUREX facilities adds complexity and is outside commercial operating experience. Moreover, existing international facilities do not capture fission gases and tritium; these are discharged to the environment within regulatory limits. Although plutonium is recycled as mixed oxide fuel, this practice actually increases the net discharge of minor actinides. Finally, the production of pure plutonium through PUREX raises concerns about materials security and proliferation of nuclear weapons-usable materials.

Pyroprocessing: Pyroprocessing is currently being used at the Idaho National Laboratory to treat and stabilize used fuel from the decommissioned EBR-II reactor. The key separation step, electrorefining, recovers uranium (the bulk of the used fuel) in a single compact process operation. Ceramic and metallic waste forms, for active metal and noble metal fission products respectively, are being produced and qualified for disposal in a geologic repository. However, the demonstration equipment used for this treatment campaign has limited scalability. Argonne National Laboratory has developed conceptual designs of scalable, high-throughput equipment as well as an integrated facility for commercial used fuel treatment, but to date only a prototype advanced scalable electrorefiner has been fabricated and successfully tested. Additionally, work is underway at Argonne to refine the fundamental understanding of pyrochemical processes to achieve greater control of the composition of the recovered materials, which will facilitate developing safeguards consistent with U.S. non-proliferation goals.

Fuel Cycle Research in the United States

In the United States, the primary organization with responsibility for the research and development of used fuel recycling technologies is the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE), through its Fuel Cycle Research and Development program. This program supports research to develop and evaluate separations and treatment processes for used nuclear fuel that will enable the transition from the current open fuel cycle practiced in the United States to a sustainable, environmentally acceptable, and economic closed fuel cycle. Ongoing projects related to reprocessing and waste management include:

• Using advanced modeling and simulation coupled with experiments to optimize the design and operation of separations equipment.
• Exploring an innovative one-step extraction process for americium and curium, radionuclides that are major contributors to nuclear waste toxicity, to reduce the cost of aqueous-based used-fuel treatment.
• Further developing pyrochemical processes for used fuel treatment. These processes enable the use of compact equipment and facilities, treatment of used fuel shortly after discharge from a reactor, and reduction of secondary waste generation.
• Developing highly durable and leach-resistant waste forms of metal, glass, and ceramic composition for safe, long-term disposal.

However, it must be noted that the United States increasingly relies on collaborative arrangements with foreign research institutions and universities to conduct research in these areas. For example, Argonne, Idaho, and other U.S. national laboratories are working with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, in a series of joint studies sponsored by the United States and Republic of Korea, to study disposition options for used nuclear fuel, including pyroprocessing, in order to develop economic, sustainable long-term solutions, consistent with non-proliferation objectives, for nuclear energy production and waste management. The state of U.S nuclear research facilities is declining compared to steady investments being made in countries such as France, Russia, Japan, and Republic of Korea. More importantly, those governments, as part of their national energy policies, have committed to the development and deployment of advanced fast reactor technologies, which are an important element of an integrated energy and waste management policy.

Advanced Fast Reactor Technology

The American Nuclear Society believes that the development and deployment of advanced nuclear reactors based on fast-neutron fission technology is important to the sustainability, reliability, and security of the world’s long-term energy supply. Nearly all current nuclear reactors are of the “thermal neutron” design, and their capability to extract the energy potential in the uranium fuel is limited to less than 1% of that available. The remainder of the energy potential is left unused in the discharged fuel and in the uranium, depleted in U-235, that remains from the process of enriching the natural uranium in the isotope U-235 for use in thermal reactors. With known fast reactor technology, this unutilized energy can be harvested, thereby extending by a hundred-fold the amount of energy extracted from the same amount of mined uranium.

It is the opinion of the ANS that fast reactors in conjunction with nuclear fuel recycling can diminish the cost and duration of storing and disposing of waste. These cost savings may offset cost increases in the fuel cycle due to reprocessing and fuel re-fabrication. Virtually all long-lived heavy elements are eliminated during fast reactor operation, leaving a small amount of fission product waste that requires assured isolation from the environment for only hundreds of years. The design and construction of a geologic repository would be substantially less complex and costly. Just as importantly, a repository of this type could be located in a very broad range of areas, increasing the likelihood of multiple host locations.

Summary

The American Nuclear Society endorses development of used nuclear fuel recycling in fast neutron spectrum reactors in parallel with a geologic repository to secure an integrated, sustainable nuclear energy system for the United States. This initiative should balance the needs of the nuclear energy production sector with those of the waste management sector to achieve an integrated system that increases resource utilization for energy production, disposes waste in an environmentally acceptable manner, and is economic. The global nature of nuclear energy production and waste management encourages the continuation of U.S.-foreign collaborations to develop and demonstrate recycling and fast reactor technologies. In this regard, the relationship between the United States and Republic of Korea is of mutual benefit and of strategic importance to our nuclear energy and waste management policies.

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