Scientists and engineers are working to help the nuclear industry make reactors more efficient through computer modeling and simulation.

The Department’s Energy Innovation Hubs are helping to advance promising areas of energy science and engineering from the earliest stages of research to the point of commercialization where technologies can move to the private sector by bringing together leadings scientists to collaborate on critical energy challenges.

The Energy Innovation Hubs aim to develop innovation through a unique approach, where scientists and engineers from many disciplines and institutions work together to overcome the scientific barriers of development. In this environment, that involves national laboratories, universities and industry, they can accomplish greater feats more quickly than they would separately. 

The Light Water Reactor Challenge

Nuclear reactors present a unique challenge to researchers interested in building new ones, or even just making existing reactors more efficient.  By their very nature, it is extremely difficult to directly observe what is happening in an operating reactor.  Modeling and simulation provides the ability for scientists and engineers to not only understand what is happening, but how it is happening in these environments.

The modeling technology run on a supercomputer called the Virtual Reactor (VR), which will allow scientists and engineers to stand in the center of a virtual reactor, observing coolant flow, nuclear fuel performance, and even the reactor's response to changes in operating conditions.

The VR will take in real world data from currently operating pressurized water reactors, which will inform safety measures in existing nuclear plants. It will also allow experts to make complex calculations and test new design concepts in a laboratory setting where they can be fine tuned, rather than building and then testing costly structures. In addition to modeling entire new reactor designs, the VR will also help solve smaller scale problems.

Specifically, the VR will couple state-of-the-art fuel performance, neutronics, thermal-hydraulics (T-H), and structural models with existing tools for systems and safety analysis and will be designed for implementation on both today’s leadership-class computers and the advanced architecture platforms now under development by the DOE.

After development and testing has concluded, the VR will be made available to the nuclear industry to ensure that the technology’s full potential to power America’s homes and businesses even more safely and efficiently can be realized.

Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL)

The Nuclear Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub will focus on a set of challenge problems that encompass the key phenomena limiting the performance of PWRs, with the expectation that much of the capability developed will be applicable to other types of reactors. Broadly, CASL’s mission is to develop and apply M&S capabilities to address three critical areas of performance for nuclear power plants (NPPs):

  1. Capital and operating costs per unit energy, which can be reduced by enabling power uprates and lifetime extension for existing NPPs and by increasing the rated powers and lifetimes of new Generation III+ NPPs;
  2. Nuclear waste volume generated, which can be reduced by enabling higher fuel burnups; and
  3. Nuclear safety, which can be enhanced by enabling high-fidelity predictive capability for component performance through failure.

The Nuclear Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub will apply existing and/or newly developed modeling and simulation capabilities to create a user environment that allows engineers to simulate an operating reactor that will act as a "virtual model." The model will be validated by “real physical” reactor data obtained from at least one reactor. The "virtual model" will address important questions about the operations of and safety basis for the reactor(s).

On May 28, 2010, the Department of Energy announced the selection of CASL, a team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to run the Nuclear Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub.  This group is partnered with other national labs, electric companies, universities and other research institutions.