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Innovative Software Tackles Nuclear Industry Challenges

May 3, 2011 - 6:08pm


Nearly a year ago, the Department of Energy selected a team lead by Oak Ridge National Laboratory to establish and operate the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), an Energy Innovation Hub. Today, we mark an important milestone in that process with the dedication of our headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It’s the culmination of an exciting year in which we've brought together nuclear energy leaders from industry to academia to the national laboratories to work together on specific challenges whose solutions will help improve reactor performance and allow us to operate them in a more efficient, cost effective and safe manner.

The cornerstone of our efforts is a set of next-generation modeling and simulation tools we call VERA, short for Virtual Reactor Environment Applications. Even though today’s plants were designed with existing and older “legacy” tools that were calibrated to the data made available to them, we think there is an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of the nation’s current nuclear fleet with more advanced capabilities like VERA. If we can build a 3-D computational framework to predict fuel performance and fuel failures under reactor operational and transient conditions, then we have a benchmarked capability that industry can use to inform short- and long-term design decisions and improvements, such as new fuel forms for today’s and tomorrow’s light-water reactors.

For example, one of the problems that industry faces is “crud,” which is basically the deposition and growth of a small layer of “gunk” that can, under certain conditions, occur on the outside of the fuel rods. The gunk accumulates over time as flow goes through the reactor, and these layers of crud in the fuel make for an inefficient exchange of heat from the fuel to the coolant. As time goes by, those deposits can grow, intake other material such as boron, and create a challenge for the operation of those reactors. Modeling these crud layers -- how, why and where they grow -- is very difficult. You have to consider all kinds of computationally intensive things like neutronics and thermohydraulics. The advanced modeling and simulation capabilities provided by VERA streamlines this complex operation, allowing us to fine tune our calculations and process the numerous variables with greater speed and accuracy.

In addition to helping the nation’s existing nuclear fleet, our vision for success is that new power reactor designs will be guided by the technologies that CASL develops. That's why we plan to make innovative tools like VERA broadly available to industry once we've concluded our development and testing. We envision that these technologies -- our virtual reactor technology and its simulation results -- will become a vital part of informing new and advanced reactor designs.