Public Release: 

Consortium to enhance Big Ten university research and training reactors

Penn State

Nuclear energy is not dead, and the near and long term future of the university research and training reactors received a boost when the U.S. Department of Energy awarded a consortium of four Big Ten universities nearly $2 million a year for the next five years.

University research reactors are where students learn to be nuclear engineers; plant personnel train and industry innovations take root. The four universities that make up the Big Ten consortium are Penn State, Purdue University, University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin, all universities with strong nuclear engineering undergraduate and graduate education programs. The lead university in the consortium is Penn State.

"While the common perception is that nuclear energy is dead, in truth, it is far from dead," says Dr. Jack Brenizer, professor and program chair of nuclear engineering at Penn State. "The perception that nothing is going on is incorrect. This year we have a class of 28 juniors and the supply of students is well below the job demand for new graduates."

Brenizer also notes that many existing power reactors have filed for extensions of their licenses and that a new generation of power reactors is currently under development. At the moment, electricity produced by nuclear power is slightly cheaper than that from all other fuels, says Brenizer.

Universities with research and training reactors are typically the places where nuclear engineers receive their training. These Big 10 university programs are leaders in the nation in nuclear power engineering and a third of all undergraduate students in the field attend one of the four universities in the consortium. Research and training reactors are important research and training facilities, and are not used simply to train reactor operators or engineers. These reactors are also used for research applications such as neutron activation analysis, neutron radiography, neutron scattering and the development of advanced nuclear power systems, as well as in a wide variety of fields including agriculture, archaeology, materials and medicine.

The last university research and training reactor was built 10 years ago and the technology used in it was older than that. Recently, reactors at some universities have been shut down. The reactor at the University of Illinois is currently in SAFSTOR status, although their nuclear program remains strong.

One program goal is to design the next generation of university research and training reactors, but that is only one of four goals for the program.

"First we need to buy equipment and make changes to enhance what is being done now at our reactors," says Brenizer. "For example, Penn State's reactor is state of the art, having had a variety of enhancements and upgrades over the years, but the classrooms we use to do outreach education for public school teachers, students and others are not. Wisconsin's laboratories need to be upgraded and Purdue needs to make improvements to their public outreach tours and other programs."

The next goal tackled will be near-term improvements and upgrades in design and equipment. For the third goal, on the theoretical side, the four universities will work together on a long term vision of what the state-of-the-art research reactor should be, using a variety of approaches including virtual reactors and computer simulations. Finally, to fulfill the fourth goal, the consortium will design the next generation of nuclear research facilities.

The four universities will share in the $1.97 million awarded for this year by the DOE with a portion of the funding earmarked for Consortium-led mini-grants. These would enable researchers in other fields who typically find the cost of using nuclear research facilities exceed their budgets, to use the services of the reactor facilities for nuclear analysis techniques. "Each university in the consortium brings a different expertise to the mix," says Brenizer. "But each also has experts who usually work alone and will now have colleagues with whom to work."

Wisconsin has an active experimental reactor-engineering program, one they would like to improve by increasing experiments using their nuclear reactor. They also are historically strong in reactor safety and risk analysis. Purdue has a strong focus on thermal hydraulic analysis. Penn State has a strong reactor and nuclear engineering program with some analysis and experimentation and Illinois is very strong in areas of computational analysis in thermal hydraulics and core physics. Where once a controls expert might do research alone, now there will be three or four experts in that field to collaborate without regard to university boundaries.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology supports the Innovations in Nuclear Education and Infrastructure program. Three other consortia were chosen under the program, led by Texas A&M; Oregon State and University of California Davis; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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