UW-Madison at forefront of innovation in nuclear energy

This article first appeared on www.engr.wisc.edu on April 9, 2016.

For countries to sharply reduce carbon emissions while also meeting the increasing demand for electrical energy, it’s widely recognized that nuclear power needs to be part of the solution.

Next-generation advanced nuclear reactors promise to compete economically with natural gas. These advanced reactor technologies are safer and more efficient than the conventional light water reactors operating today.

However, for advanced nuclear reactors to make an impact on cutting carbon emissions fast enough to stem climate change, the advanced nuclear sector and government need to work together to develop and deploy the next generation of reactors at a more rapid pace, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison Engineering Physics Assistant Professor Raluca Scarlat.

“We need plans quickly for new reactors—and quickly is not a word that’s been used in nuclear,” Scarlat says. “In order to change that, we need a lot of bright minds coming into this field. We need a lot of innovation.”

To help accelerate innovation in advanced nuclear and highlight nuclear’s role in addressing climate change, the think tank Third Way and the Idaho National Laboratory partnered with Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to host a first-of-its-kindadvanced nuclear summit and showcase in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 2016.

During the showcase portion of the event, Scarlat, along with research collaborators from the University of California-Berkeley and MIT, gave a presentation on the innovative fluoride-salt-cooled high-temperature reactor (FHR) concept that they’re working on developing. FHR is an advanced reactor design that uses a solid fuel and molten (liquid) salt as a coolant.

From left: Distinguished Research Professor Kumar Sridharan, Assistant Professor Raluca Scarlat and Research Professor Mark Anderson next to a storage container for high-temperature salt. Photo credit: Gregory Vershbow
From left: Distinguished Research Professor Kumar Sridharan, Assistant Professor Raluca Scarlat and Research Professor Mark Anderson, all principle investigators in the UW-Madison engineering physics department researching molten salts, standing next to a storage container for high-temperature salt. Photo credit: Gregory Vershbow

Several startup companies also presented their novel reactor concepts in the showcase, and Scarlat says it was very exciting to see the progress being made by nuclear entrepreneurs in this area.

Scarlat says companies like TerraPower, which was founded by Bill Gates, are helping drive innovation in advanced nuclear technology. TerraPower, which is working on developing a molten chloride salt reactor, is part of a public-private partnership that was recently awarded up to $40 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop the technology.

And when these growing companies want to recruit top talent, they look to UW-Madison. For example, Brian Kelleher, who earned his PhD at UW-Madison working on the FHR project under Engineering Physics Distinguished Research Professor Kumar Sridharan, is now working at TerraPower.

“This recruiting shows we’re effectively training our students at UW-Madison to work on these advanced nuclear technologies, and that is feeding this new resurgence of innovation in nuclear,” Scarlat says.

To enhance students’ educational experience, Scarlat reached out to a number of molten salt reactor companies to see if they would be interested in serving as advisors for student design teams in NEEP 412: Nuclear Reactor Design. Scarlat says the response from the companies was tremendous, with six agreeing to serve as team advisors. “By building connections with these companies, we’re also reinforcing the fact that we’re training students in this area and companies can recruit talented engineering grads from us,” she says.

In addition to the innovative FHR research and training students, Scarlat says UW-Madison’s unique capabilities for handling and studying molten salts containing beryllium make the university a leader in advanced nuclear.

Because beryllium is highly toxic, it’s difficult to build facilities that can handle these kinds of high-temperature salts. UW-Madison is the only university in the country with the safety procedures in place to handle and purify beryllium fluoride salts and with faculty members who have experimental expertise with these molten salts.

“Our experimental facilities are quite unique at UW-Madison, and we can assist nuclear companies by doing measurements that are specific to their reactor designs,” Scarlat says.

Written by Adam Malecek