NCSU professor testing nuclear fuels with computers

CorrespondentSeptember 6, 2010 

One of the biggest drawbacks to nuclear power is the potential for catastrophic accidents such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. A nuclear engineering professor at N.C. State University, however, hopes computer models will help make the technology safer.

With U.S. Department of Energy funding, NCSU is leading an effort, called the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, to produce safer, more cost-effective nuclear energy through computer modeling.

"We are taking advantage of the incredible computer power available to be more like the aerospace industry," said Paul Turinsky, a nuclear engineering professor at NCSU and the project's chief scientist. "We can crash test new fuels for our plants on the computer before even putting something in a reactor."

Currently, it takes 15 years to develop a new fuel, Turinsky said, and scientists test it with a "cook and look" process: They put fuel into a reactor, heat it, then examine it under an electron microscope to detect any structural or chemical changes.

Computer models will give researchers four decades of data at an accelerated pace, and will also help determine why cracks appear in reactors and offer clues on how to avoid them.

Testing fuels with computer models could help engineers determine the maximum temperature for fuels to burn safely, potentially increasing a power plant's efficiency. Turinsky predicts that conducting computer tests could produce up to 15 percent more energy from an individual plant, as well as double a power plant's lifespan to 80 years.

Improving nuclear power safety isn't a large concern because experts already consider it a safe form of energy, said Steve Patterson, director of the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center at UNC Charlotte. The benefit of computer models is testing changes in a risk-free environment.

"With computer models, engineers can to do things they'd never do in big reactors," Patterson said. "They can look at any part of a reaction, stop it and figure out where the failure is to make nuclear power better down the line."

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