UNM hosts nuclear innovation workshop

March 5, 2015 - By Karen Wentworth

Los Alamos National Lab staff member D.V. Rao leads a review of recommendations to U.S. Dept. of Energy from workshop at the University of New Mexico.

What will it take to make electrical power generated by nuclear reactors a safe and normal part of the world’s energy future? That’s one of several questions researchers and engineers tried to answer in a series of three-day workshops scattered at universities across the country.

The Department of Energy is trying to understand what types of research should be funded by the department over the next several years. The department heard bluntly, from groups including the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), Oregon State University, Ohio State University, North Carolina State University, Boise State University and the University of New Mexico, that the obstacles to the development of next generation nuclear reactors are as much political, financial and regulatory as they are practical engineering problems.

Not that there is a lack of research questions. The groups say the department should fund research to find better ways to deal with waste generated by current reactors, to explore new reactor designs and solve problems with the amount of water reactors need to cool fuel elements.

The groups are concerned that there is no national research facility available to efficiently test new reactor designs. High on their wish list is a way to test new designs in a faculty that can be reconfigured to explore new materials and methods of generation.

Participants in the workshops were asked to consider:

  • Innovative Concepts – design questions for nuclear energy systems and subsystems
  • Innovating Use of Existing Technologies – technologies that are now currently used in nuclear energy generation
  • Innovative R&D – more efficient ways to commercialize new technologies
  • Innovative Licensing – better and more timely ways to license nuclear energy reactors

D.V. Rao, a staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory, helped lead the discussion at UNM. He said it would be helpful if there were a national facility that could support experiments to build and test prototypes for new reactor designs. “We need a way to demonstrate that a concept works on a small scale,” he said.

Nuclear engineers worry that China and other countries are much more willing to support new concepts in generating electricity by nuclear reaction than the U.S. They recommended the Department of Energy should set and support funding priorities for national research goals in nuclear energy research.

The workshop at UNM was hosted by the Nuclear Engineering Department. Recommendations from the six workshops on “Innovation in Nuclear Energy” will be compiled by the DOE, which may present specific recommendations to congress.