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Nuclear safety innovation in Idaho builds on inter-disciplinary research, and inter-institution collaboration

By David Schwartz
Published: January 9th, 2018

The importance of interdisciplinary partnerships – and in many cases inter-institutional partnerships as well — is being clearly demonstrated by an Idaho collaboration focused on improving the safety and efficiency of nuclear power plants.

The work involves a team of researchers from the University of Idaho, Boise State University, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and industry partner Sakae Casting, which was recently awarded a two-year Idaho Department of Commerce Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) grant to design a new, safer and more efficient method for cooling and storing the spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors.

There are more than 450 nuclear power plants safely operating all over the world, and each of these plants must replace its fuel supply every three years and safely store the spent nuclear fuel. Currently, spent fuel is stored in pools of water for 10-20 years before safely being sealed in concrete storage casks. Monitoring the water levels and ensuring a readily available water supply in the pools during is critical — it was a loss of cooling water in these ponds during the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan that led to radioactive release and compromised fuel at the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

The IGEM team, led by researchers from U of Idaho’s Nuclear Engineering Program, could potentially revolutionize this process. The team proposed designing and fabricating borated aluminum casks that could safely store and cool spent fuel while substantially reducing the amount of water required and providing a smaller footprint for storage.

The project is possible only because the collaborators each bring deep expertise is a specific discipline, but none could have undertaken the research alone.

Sakae Casting is a Japan-based company that has recently opened an office in Idaho Falls and is looking to build research partnerships in the state. The company approached University of Idaho researchers with a novel new cooling technology and a question: Could this be put to use in the nuclear industry?

Researchers from U of I answered with a resounding yes. They sketched a draft of what a nuclear fuel cask could look like, using this new cooling technology, and are now seeking to gain valuable computational and engineering expertise as they refine their design, which includes quantifying and validating the amount of radiation released by the spent fuel and the neutron flux to design the cask accordingly.

Researchers from Boise State’s Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering were brought to the project to develop and optimize the fabrication methods needed for the cask – which must meet unique safety requirements. The cask design work itself will be done at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, which is a research consortium among the Idaho research universities, University of Wyoming and INL. In addition, the national lab will help ensure that the final design meets the requirements imposed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so it can be deployed as a usable product in the nuclear industry.

Source: Idaho Statesman

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