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Major research initiatives fuel national discussions

Three major initiatives led by NERS faculty are shaping the future of nuclear energy, including safety, security and treaty verification.

By Kim Roth

Three major initiatives led by NERS faculty are shaping the future of nuclear energy, including safety, security and treaty verification. The Department recently hosted events at which the principal investigators and their teams shared progress and facilitated national discussions on these important topics.

From Integrated Research Project to Office of Nuclear Energy Program

The three-year Integrated Research Project (IRP) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy and led by NERS Professor Gary Was earned the ultimate nod of approval at its most recent institutional review meeting: recommendation that the project be continued and expanded into the U.S. national laboratory system.

“The Office of Nuclear Energy felt our idea and early results had enough merit that it should be continued and expanded to include national labs — Los Alamos National Laboratory specifically,” Was said.

To date, no other IRP has been promoted to an Office of Nuclear Energy regular program and expanded.

The initiative aims to better understand radiation effects in reactor core structural materials at high radiation doses using ion radiation. The work is critical both to extending the life of the current reactor fleet as well as developing new, advanced reactor concepts.

Assessing radiation effects on reactor materials using conventional in-reactor experiments and post-irradiation analysis can take decades and cost many millions of dollars. Ion irradiation, by contrast, can reach the desired damage level (200 displacements per atom, or dpa) in just a few days — at about 1/1,000 the cost.

The challenge, Was explained, has been to understand whether the resulting damage structures are the same as those produced in-reactor over a longer period of time. His program includes in-reactor irradiations of the same material being irradiated with ions in order to make comparisons.

“The progress we made in the first three years was substantial and provided preliminary results to indicate that, in fact, we are getting the same damage structures out to moderate damage levels,” Was said.

“I think DOE also was impressed that we had samples in-reactor only three months after the project started, and they appreciated the team, which consisted of the best people in the country.”

The expanded program has been funded with $4.8 million over three years. The transition to a full Office of Nuclear Energy program, Was noted, “is a major win for us since this is the first Nuclear Energy University Program IRP ever to be provided with such an opportunity.”

Consortium for Verification Technology

The Consortium for Verification Technology (CVT), a $25-million program led by NERS Professor Sara Pozzi, is now entering its fifth year, and has continued to have a positive impact on nuclear security and nonproliferation. As highlighted at the 2018 University Program Review (UPR) meeting held in June in Ann Arbor, Pozzi said, the CVT has made steady, demonstrable progress toward accomplishing its mission: to develop new technologies and train the next generation of scientists in the field of nuclear treaty verification.

To date, CVT faculty and laboratory scientists have trained over 260 postdoctoral researchers and students at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. More than 80 students have participated in laboratory internships, during which they receive mentorship and valuable field experience. CVT research projects have produced over 150 peer-reviewed journal publications. Faculty and students have given more than 120 invited talks and have delivered more than 500 presentations at conferences and meetings. As a part of its outreach activities, including lab tours, seminars and other activities, the consortium has reached over 1,000 elementary, middle and high school students as well as members of the public.

At the June UPR meeting, three students from CVT universities were recognized for their outstanding presentations at the meeting and their research efforts over the past year. Students were selected based on criteria such as the novelty of their research ideas, impact on the field and performance at the meeting.

Recognition for Best Oral Presentation was awarded to David Goodman, University of Michigan, for his presentation, “High Resolution Imaging of Plutonium / Ultra-Far Field 3-D Source Localization.” Robert Weldon of North Carolina State University earned Best Poster Presentation for his poster, “Characterization of the Anistropic Scintillation Response of Stilbene to Neutrons.” Ciara Sivels, also of University of Michigan, was recognized for Best National Laboratory Impact for her work on radioxenon detection techniques, performed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light water reactors

At the annual Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light water reactors (CASL) Roundtable in July, representatives from across the CASL consortium gathered in Ann Arbor to share progress and plans.

“The idea is to stimulate technical discussion and exchange ideas within and among CASL’s areas of focus to best achieve the overarching goal,” said NERS Professor Bill Martin, principal investigator of CASL at U-M and lead for CASL’s radiation transport methods focus area. NERS Professor Tom Downar serves as deputy lead for the physics integration focus area.

A DOE Energy Innovation Hub based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, CASL’s goal is to develop a virtual reactor that can be used for high-fidelity simulation of light water reactors to help promote safety, efficiency and innovation.

As part of the 10-year effort, begun in 2010, CASL is focused on developing the simulation tool VERA, the Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications.

“VERA is intended to address short-term technical issues facing the nuclear industry as well as meet the longer-term goal of enabling high-fidelity reactor simulation that the industry can use,” Martin said. In fact, VERA already has been used for the Tennessee Valley Authority Watts Bar 2 reactor.

Funding to UM for CASL — close to $2 million annually for the last eight years — has supported research and development in NERS and other departments within the College. In 2017, 29 faculty, staff and students participated on the UM CASL team, including several recent NERS PhD graduates: Mitch Young, Aaron Graham, Mike Rose, Ben Yee, Ang Zhu, and Mike Jarrett.

Scientists across CASL presented during the roundtable. Several NERS students presented posters and Jim Duderstadt, UM president emeritus and former chair of the CASL board of directors, gave a talk at a working luncheon focused on the future of CASL. In addition, the radiation transport methods and physics integration focus areas also held a joint workshop the day before the roundtable event.

“Both the roundtable and the joint workshop were productive meetings that brought researchers together from across the entire CASL consortium,” Martin said. “The opportunities to share information and plan together helped CASL as a whole and each of the focus areas individually define workscopes and budgets for FY2019.”

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