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Making nuclear energy cost-competitive

Three MIT teams to explore novel ways to reduce operations and maintenance costs of advanced nuclear reactors.
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MIT teams in the GEMINA program will provide a framework for more streamlined operations and maintenance costs for next-generation advanced nuclear reactors.
MIT teams in the GEMINA program will provide a framework for more streamlined operations and maintenance costs for next-generation advanced nuclear reactors.
Photo: Yakov Ostrovsky

Nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source that is vital to decreasing carbon emissions. A critical factor in its continued viability as a future energy source is finding novel and innovative ways to improve operations and maintenance (O&M) costs in the next generation of advanced reactors. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) established the Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets (GEMINA) program to do exactly this. Through $27 million in funding, GEMINA is accelerating research, discovery, and development of new digital technologies that would produce effective and sustainable reductions in O&M costs.

Three MIT research teams have received APRA-E GEMINA awards to generate critical data and strategies to reduce O&M costs for the next generation of nuclear power plants to make them more economical, flexible, and efficient. The MIT teams include researchers from Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. By leveraging state-of-art in high-fidelity simulations and unique MIT research reactor capabilities, the MIT-led teams will collaborate with leading industry partners with practical O&M experience and automation to support the development of digital twins. Digital twins are virtual replicas of physical systems that are programmed to have the same properties, specifications, and behavioral characteristics as actual systems. The goal is to apply artificial intelligence, advanced control systems, predictive maintenance, and model-based fault detection within the digital twins to inform the design of O&M frameworks for advanced nuclear power plants.

In a project focused on developing high-fidelity digital twins for the critical systems in advanced nuclear reactors, NSE professors Emilio Baglietto and Koroush Shirvan will collaborate with researchers from GE Research and GE Hitachi. The GE Hitachi BWRX-300, a small modular reactor designed to provide flexible energy generation, will serve as a reference design. BWRX-300 is a promising small modular reactor concept that aims to be competitive with natural gas to realize market penetration in the United States. The team will assemble, validate, and exercise high-fidelity digital twins of the BWRX-300 systems. Digital twins address mechanical and thermal fatigue failure modes that drive O&M activities well beyond selected BWRX-300 components and extend to all advanced reactors where a flowing fluid is present. The role of high-fidelity resolution is central to the approach, as it addresses the unique challenges of the nuclear industry.

NSE will leverage the tremendous advancements they have achieved in recent years to accelerate the transition of the nuclear industry toward high-fidelity simulations in the form of computational fluid dynamics. The high spatial and time resolution accuracy of the simulations, combined with the AI-enabled digital twins, offer the opportunity to deliver predictive maintenance approaches that can greatly reduce the operating cost of nuclear stations. GE Research represents an ideal partner, given their tremendous experience in developing digital twins and close link to GE Hitachi and BWRX-300 design team. This team is particularly well position to tackle regulatory challenges of applying digital twins to safety-grade components through explicit characterization of uncertainties. This three-year MIT-led project is supported by an award of $1,787,065.

MIT Principal Research Engineer and Interim Director of the Nuclear Reactor Lab Gordon Kohse will lead a collaboration with MPR Associates to generate critical irradiation data to be used in digital twinning of molten-salt reactors (MSRs). MSRs produce radioactive materials when nuclear fuel is dissolved in a molten salt at high temperature and undergoes fission as it flows through the reactor core. Understanding the behavior of these radioactive materials is important for MSR design and for predicting and reducing O&M costs — a vital step in bringing safe, clean, next-generation nuclear power to market. The MIT-led team will use the MIT nuclear research reactor's unique capability to provide data to determine how radioactive materials are generated and transported in MSR components. Digital twins of MSRs will require this critical data, which is currently unavailable. The MIT team will monitor radioactivity during and after irradiation of molten salts containing fuel in materials that will be used in MSR construction. Along with Kohse, the MIT research team includes David Carpenter and Kaichao Sun from the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, and Charles Forsberg and Professor Mingda Li from NSE. Storm Kauffman and the MPR Associates team bring a wealth of nuclear industry experience to the project and will ensure that the data generated aligns with the needs of reactor developers. This two-year project is supported by an award of $899,825.

In addition to these two MIT-led projects, a third MIT team will work closely with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) on a new paradigm for reducing advanced reactor O&M. This is a proof-of-concept study that will explore how to move away from the traditional maintenance and repair approach. The EPRI-led project will examine a “replace and refurbish” model in which components are intentionally designed and tested for shorter and more predictable lifetimes with the potential for game-changing O&M cost savings. This approach is similar to that adopted by the commercial airline industry, in which multiple refurbishments — including engine replacement — can keep a jet aircraft flying economically over many decades. The study will evaluate several advanced reactor designs with respect to cost savings and other important economic benefits, such as increased sustainability for suppliers. The MIT team brings together Jeremy Gregory from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Lance Snead from the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, and professors Jacopo Buongiorno and Koroush Shirvan from NSE. 

“This collaborative project will take a fresh look at reducing the operation and maintenance cost by allowing nuclear technology to better adapt to the ever-changing energy market conditions. MIT's role is to identify cost-reducing pathways that would be applicable across a range of promising advanced reactor technologies. Particularly, we need to incorporate latest advancements in material science and engineering along with civil structures in our strategies," says MIT project lead Shirvan.

The advances by these three MIT teams, along with the six other awardees in the GEMINA program, will provide a framework for more streamlined O&M costs for next-generation advanced nuclear reactors — a critical factor to being competitive with alternative energy sources.

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