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Rensselaer Research Review Spring 2007 * Feature Articles Awards & Grants Recent Patents Accolades
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Designing Safer Nuclear Reactors
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has the most powerful university-based supercomputer in the world. Now, a $3 million project joins Rensselaer’s supercomputer with the supercomputer found at Brookhaven National Laboratory, to boost the safety and reliability of next-generation nuclear power reactors.

The three-year project calls for the creation of highly detailed computer models of a new proposed type of nuclear reactor. These reactors, which meet stringent safety and nonproliferation criteria, can burn long-lived and highly radioactive materials, and can operate over a long time without using new fuel.

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* CCNI Blue Gene Supercomputer
IBM Blue Gene Supercomputer at the Computational Center for Nantechnology Innovations
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Running simulations of such a vast virtual model, where scientists can watch the reactor system perform as a whole or zoom in to focus on the interaction of individual molecules, requires unprecedented computing power.

The Challenges of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power should likely gain traction and become more widespread in the coming decades, as nations seek ways to fulfill their growing energy needs without increasing their greenhouse emissions, according to Michael Podowski, the project leader and world-renowned nuclear engineering and multiphase science and technology expert. Nuclear reactors produce no carbon dioxide, he said, which gives this energy source an advantage over coal and other fossil fuels for large-scale electricity production.

The main challenge of nuclear power plants, he said, is their production of radioactive waste as a byproduct of energy production. But several governments around the world, including the United States, work with universities, research consortia, and the private sector to design and develop new, so-called “fourth generation” nuclear reactors that are safer and produce less waste. These reactors will be necessary in the coming decades as nuclear reactors currently in use reach the end of their life cycle and are gradually decommissioned. 

The type of reactor that Podowski’s team will model, a sodium-cooled fast reactor, or SFR, is among the most promising of these next-generation designs. The primary advantage of the SFR is its ability to burn highly radioactive nuclear materials, which today’s reactors cannot do, Podowski said. 

Whereas current reactors source their power from uranium, SFRs can also source their power from fuel that is a mixture of uranium and plutonium. In particular, SFRs will be able to burn both weapons-grade plutonium and pre-existing nuclear waste, Podowski said. Thanks to their high temperatures, SFRs will also produce electricity at higher efficiency than current nuclear reactors. 

So along with producing less toxic waste, SFRs should be able to actively help reduce the amount of existing radioactive materials by burning already-spent nuclear waste, he said. SFRs also offer a viable, productive way to start getting rid of the world’s stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear fuel. 

“The idea is to design reactors that can use this material and that are safe,” Podowski said. “With this project, we are trying to improve the understanding of the physics of the system in order to provide the necessary advancements for the design of new, safer, and better reactors.” 


CCNI photo by RPI/Daria Robbins ’03

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“Designing Safer Nuclear Reactors”
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  Feature Articles | Podcast | Awards | Patents | Accolades | Back Issues    Winter 2007-08
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