UT Nuclear Engineers Part of Three Grants Totaling $2.6 Million

Professors from the UT College of Engineering are part of three separate nuclear safety research projects that collectively have been awarded $2.6 million.

The US Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Programs has made the three allocations:

$800,000 to a team led by Associate Professor Ivan Maldonado and including Governor’s Chair Brian Wirth that is looking at nuclear reaction safety and performance

$1 million to a team including Assistant Professor Jamie Coble that is developing new ways of monitoring and calibrating at nuclear facilities

$800,000 to a team including UCOR Faculty Fellow Jason Hayward that is developing a new imaging system capable of monitoring dry storage casks

All of the faculty members involved are from the Department of Nuclear Engineering at UT.

“This is another strong indication of the strength of our nuclear engineering program,” said Wayne Davis, dean of the College of Engineering. “The kind of growth we’ve had in that department’s ranking is reflected by the quality of our faculty.”

Nuclear reactor safety

Maldonado’s team will try to analyze and evaluate fuels that are more tolerant to accidents, helping with overall safety and easing some of the concerns the public has about nuclear energy.

Additionally, the team—including Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers Jeff Powers and Andy Worrall—will study how those fuel ideas perform in an effort to increase efficiency.

“The nature of commercial nuclear power is such that it consistently aims to maximize power generation while minimizing cost and waste production,” said Maldonado. “At the same time, reactor designers and researchers work to develop nuclear fuels that enhance safety and mitigate or even completely eliminate the risks associated with current fuels.”

Monitoring, calibrating at nuclear facilities

The project Coble is working on is being headed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory but features UT as a collaborating institution, for which the university’s share will come to around $290,000 over three years.

The Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies Advanced Sensors and Instrumentation program will oversee the project, which could help nuclear engineers more efficiently design and run facilities while increasing safety.

“Currently, inspections and calibrations are commonly done when reactors are taken offline,” said Coble, who explained that typically occurs about once every eighteen months. “This approach is time-consuming and expensive, it contributes to radiation exposure for plant workers, and unnecessary maintenance actions can potentially damage sensors, meaning you can wind up doing as much harm as good.”

In addition to UT and PNNL, the team will include Knoxville-based Analysis and Measurement Service Corporation, run by UT alumnus Hash Hashemian, and researchers from the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and Chosun University.

Monitoring dry storage casks

The third project, on which Hayward will serve as a collaborator, is headed by Oregon State University.

Currently, massive amounts of plutonium are housed in such facilities, but the technology to more accurately monitor it isn’t readily in place.

The team hopes to use cosmic ray muons, a type of particle, to more effectively and yet inexpensively monitor the facilities.

“Cosmic ray muons are so highly penetrating that they have been used to image hidden chambers within pyramids or predict eruptions inside volcanoes,” said Hayward. “In our case, we can use our knowledge of their physics to develop a system with the capability of verifying and measuring the content inside a dry storage cask without opening it.”

Hayward said that such a breakthrough could have a massive impact on nuclear energy and safety worldwide, since teams could more easily track nuclear fuel.

C O N T A C T :

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)