Argonne Lab advances nuclear energy
The Argonne National Laboratory is at the forefront of research into the design of portable nuclear reactors, working to make the technology viable for use in places such as military bases and remote communities.
Micro-reactor concepts are being developed that could integrate power generation in a small area, for example in the back of a truck, or even in a rocket directed to space. The US Department of Energy (DOE) and others tout small reactors as a way to deliver reliable, carbon-free power or support the resiliency of the power grid.
Researchers and engineers at DOE’s Argonne plant in Lemont, Ill. Are working to take micro-reactors from concept to reality. They are working in partnership with the private sector and federal regulators, looking at designs that could produce a few kilowatts of electricity, up to 20 MW. Part of the thinking behind micro-reactors is that their small size means that they can be manufactured at a reduced cost compared to other nuclear technologies, and that they could be quickly replicated with a simple design. And while the design may be simple, micro-reactors are designed to operate safely for years, if not decades, and they are also self-monitoring, eliminating the need for constant human monitoring.
Andrew Breshears is one of the Argonne researchers working on the support of micro-reactors. Breshears, a senior nuclear chemist, said he and his colleagues “are creating a framework to ensure confidence in the way these reactors are constructed, sited and constructed.”
Breshears recently took the time to answer questions about advanced reactor technology and the work underway at Argonne.
POWER: It seems that advanced reactors and micro-reactors are gaining a lot of momentum. What is Argonne doing to advance these efforts?
Breshears: The Argonne National Laboratory has been in a particularly advantageous position to help with advanced nuclear energy. Argonne has done a lot to advance the future of nuclear power. Argonne is home to the Mechanism engineering test loop installation which tests components that will be subjected to sodium fast reactor environments. We are also working on better nuclear fuels, a nuclear fuel cycle with less impact on the environment and communities, and by applying artificial intelligence nuclear safety.
POWER: You talk about the safety and security of reactors and it seems that has always been on the public mind when it comes to nuclear energy. Can you tell us how Argonne works in the interest of public health and confidence in the commercialization of reactors?
Breshears: Yes, one of my projects in Argonne focuses on national guarantees for micro-reactors. The idea is to create a decision tree type product that will help developers, vendors and utilities understand what is expected for safeguarding advanced nuclear power plants in the U.S. The project ensures that the benefits of micro -reactors are considered and documented properly for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and, of course, to protect the public. Areas and situations that may require further support or mitigation will be notified to developers, vendors, and utilities so that there is no confusion or lack of knowledge about the issue. The core of our group is to offer the science and expertise necessary to make advanced reactors safe, secure and sustainable.
POWER: What’s the next step for this project?
Breshears: Right now, we’re working on the first iteration of the final product. Argonne has a good relationship with advanced reactor designers who have partnerships through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) of the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. We are currently working with ARDP micro-reactor suppliers to apply the product to their reactor concept. We believe this will significantly speed up discussions about national safeguards in the licensing process, ultimately helping this vendor to establish itself in the U.S. We believe other vendors and concepts will appreciate our work and also attempt to start the same process for them.
Beyond the short term, our group is confident and enthusiastic about the idea of extending external microreactors to other advanced reactor concepts. We are looking to eventually adapt this product of the decision tree to other types of reactors. In doing so, we provide communities with several safe and secure reactor options to meet their energy and environmental needs and visions. This could range from high energy density reactor concepts, to load following concepts that correspond to other renewables, to special “waste burner” reactors that would virtually eliminate the long-lasting consequences of used nuclear fuel. to be the problem of our children or grandchildren.
POWER: Can you go into more detail? Specifically, why are domestic safeguards so important to the domestic industry?
Breshears: This is a very important question, so let me give you an analogy. Your heart is at the heart of your body, right? And in more than one way. Likewise, the reactor core is at the heart of the transformation of matter into heat which is then converted into electrical energy. In the same analogy, you can almost think of uranium and other fissile material like reactor blood. However, you cannot lose blood. In fact, your body is extremely good at ensuring that you don’t lose blood. One aspect of national safeguards is called materials control and accounting, which ensures that a reactor facility does not lose the materials that the reactor needs to generate power. The difference of course is that your body has evolved to conserve blood, and reactors don’t, at least not in a biological sense. This is where NRC’s material control and accounting requirements come in. We all have a stake in ensuring that the lifeblood of the reactor, which produces energy for our homes, businesses, airports, hospitals, etc., can continue to function.
POWER: Argonne seems to do a lot of work with DOE, NRC, and industry, but what about the community as an advanced nuclear stakeholder?
Breshears: Thanks for asking this question! The community is a major player in nuclear science. What we do as a national laboratory and how it affects the community is at the heart of our mission. Having said that, teaching the community about our work and science is a huge motivator for the lab, and especially for myself. We have lots of opportunities to go to schools from kindergarten to college and talk about our work and the impact Argonne has on them and their families.
One of my favorite visits was to a high school where I was talking about advanced nuclear reactor technologies. I spoke to a new group of students every hour for 10 hours. I didn’t even have time for lunch. However, what really got me going was the enthusiasm of the students. The idea for some of them that salt or metal could melt without ruining anything, or that reactors could become even more efficient than current reactors, or the possibility of producing more vital medical isotopes, and their enthusiasm through it all, that’s what kept me going.
–Darrell proctor is associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).