MIT Explores New Ways to Make Nuclear Energy Cost-Competitive

Nuclear Power Plant
Three MIT teams to explore novel ways to reduce operations and maintenance costs of advanced nuclear reactors.

MIT teams in the GEMINA program will provide a framework for more streamlined operations and maintenance costs for next-generation advanced nuclear reactors.

Nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source that is vital to decreasing carbon emissions. A critical factor in its continued viability as a future energy source is finding novel and innovative ways to improve operations and maintenance (O&M) costs in the next generation of advanced reactors. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) established the Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets (GEMINA) program to do exactly this. Through $27 million in funding, GEMINA is accelerating research, discovery, and development of new digital technologies that would produce effective and sustainable reductions in O&M costs.

Three MIT research teams have received APRA-E GEMINA awards to generate critical data and strategies to reduce O&M costs for the next generation of nuclear power plants to make them more economical, flexible, and efficient. The MIT teams include researchers from Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory. By leveraging state-of-art in high-fidelity simulations and unique MIT research reactor capabilities, the MIT-led teams will collaborate with leading industry partners with practical O&M experience and automation to support the development of digital twins. Digital twins are virtual replicas of physical systems that are programmed to have the same properties, specifications, and behavioral characteristics as actual systems. The goal is to apply artificial intelligence, advanced control systems, predictive maintenance, and model-based fault detection within the digital twins to inform the design of O&M frameworks for advanced nuclear power plants.

MIT Nuclear Reactor Core

The blue glow of Cerenkov radiation emanates from the core of MIT’s reactor. Credit: MIT Nuclear Reactor Lab

In a project focused on developing high-fidelity digital twins for the critical systems in advanced nuclear reactors, NSE professors Emilio Baglietto and Koroush Shirvan will collaborate with researchers from GE Research and GE Hitachi. The GE Hitachi BWRX-300, a small modular reactor designed to provide flexible energy generation, will serve as a reference design. BWRX-300 is a promising small modular reactor concept that aims to be competitive with natural gas to realize market penetration in the United States. The team will assemble, validate, and exercise high-fidelity digital twins of the BWRX-300 systems. Digital twins address mechanical and thermal fatigue failure modes that drive O&M activities well beyond selected BWRX-300 components and extend to all advanced reactors where a flowing fluid is present. The role of high-fidelity resolution is central to the approach, as it addresses the unique challenges of the nuclear industry.

NSE will leverage the tremendous advancements they have achieved in recent years to accelerate the transition of the nuclear industry toward high-fidelity simulations in the form of computational fluid dynamics. The high spatial and time resolution accuracy of the simulations, combined with the AI-enabled digital twins, offer the opportunity to deliver predictive maintenance approaches that can greatly reduce the operating cost of nuclear stations. GE Research represents an ideal partner, given their tremendous experience in developing digital twins and close link to GE Hitachi and BWRX-300 design team. This team is particularly well positioned to tackle regulatory challenges of applying digital twins to safety-grade components through explicit characterization of uncertainties. This three-year MIT-led project is supported by an award of $1,787,065.

MIT Principal Research Engineer and Interim Director of the Nuclear Reactor Lab Gordon Kohse will lead a collaboration with MPR Associates to generate critical irradiation data to be used in digital twinning of molten-salt reactors (MSRs). MSRs produce radioactive materials when nuclear fuel is dissolved in a molten salt at high temperature and undergoes fission as it flows through the reactor core. Understanding the behavior of these radioactive materials is important for MSR design and for predicting and reducing O&M costs — a vital step in bringing safe, clean, next-generation nuclear power to market. The MIT-led team will use the MIT nuclear research reactor’s unique capability to provide data to determine how radioactive materials are generated and transported in MSR components. Digital twins of MSRs will require this critical data, which is currently unavailable. The MIT team will monitor radioactivity during and after irradiation of molten salts containing fuel in materials that will be used in MSR construction. Along with Kohse, the MIT research team includes David Carpenter and Kaichao Sun from the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, and Charles Forsberg and Professor Mingda Li from NSE. Storm Kauffman and the MPR Associates team bring a wealth of nuclear industry experience to the project and will ensure that the data generated aligns with the needs of reactor developers. This two-year project is supported by an award of $899,825.

In addition to these two MIT-led projects, a third MIT team will work closely with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) on a new paradigm for reducing advanced reactor O&M. This is a proof-of-concept study that will explore how to move away from the traditional maintenance and repair approach. The EPRI-led project will examine a “replace and refurbish” model in which components are intentionally designed and tested for shorter and more predictable lifetimes with the potential for game-changing O&M cost savings. This approach is similar to that adopted by the commercial airline industry, in which multiple refurbishments — including engine replacement — can keep a jet aircraft flying economically over many decades. The study will evaluate several advanced reactor designs with respect to cost savings and other important economic benefits, such as increased sustainability for suppliers. The MIT team brings together Jeremy Gregory from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Lance Snead from the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, and professors Jacopo Buongiorno and Koroush Shirvan from NSE. 

“This collaborative project will take a fresh look at reducing the operation and maintenance cost by allowing nuclear technology to better adapt to the ever-changing energy market conditions. MIT’s role is to identify cost-reducing pathways that would be applicable across a range of promising advanced reactor technologies. Particularly, we need to incorporate latest advancements in material science and engineering along with civil structures in our strategies,” says MIT project lead Shirvan.

The advances by these three MIT teams, along with the six other awardees in the GEMINA program, will provide a framework for more streamlined O&M costs for next-generation advanced nuclear reactors — a critical factor to being competitive with alternative energy sources.

22 Comments on "MIT Explores New Ways to Make Nuclear Energy Cost-Competitive"

  1. George Fleming | June 15, 2020 at 10:58 pm | Reply

    On the same page as this article is a link to another article on this website, “Likelihood of Nuclear Accident 200 Times Greater than Previously Thought.”

    What does that have to do with this article?

    This article makes the standard claim “Nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source that is vital to decreasing carbon emissions.” But that has never been shown. It may be that nuclear power emits the most carbon. We don’t know. It would take a massive study to reach any reasonable conclusion on this question.

    One part of the study would be to determine how much carbon dioxide pollution is caused by nuclear accidents, including the lost infrastructure that must be replaced, the enormous waste of fuel and material during the response which may last decades, and the cost of losing the use of land to radioactive contamination.

    It must account for the carbon emissions of the nuclear fuel cycle, a field of study made rigorous by Smith and VanLeeuwen. Not least, what are the carbon emissions caused by the nuclear waste problem? How do we determine the carbon pollution associated with the human and animal suffering and loss of life? The genetic damage to all life from the accident?

    It would be a tremendously difficult study. Probably the hardest part would be for the researchers to agree on the results. But until we have such a study, there is no basis for claiming that nuclear energy is low-carbon.

  2. What the nuclear industry should be working on is better canisters and how to develop secure bunkers for the waste. Any plan that would bury the waste where it could not be monitored and retrieved when it starts to leak, should be dropped.
    The only thing “green” about nuclear energy is all the money it will take to continue using it and managing it’s forever nuclear waste.

  3. Are you kidding me? You are still spending insane amounts of money to create a massively destructive technology disregarding the health and wellness of the rent of our world??? Just because you can’t make a profit from the naturally occurring elements such as the sun??? You are sick and I hope you and your loved ones get caught up in your next catastrophe. Not like you care about life or anything other than money and your stupid plans for our future that will not exist because of your stupid greed. You are not attempting to do anything honorable or good. You need to be stopped.

  4. IT CAN’T BE MADE MORE “COST EFFECTIVE” as the massive long term death of life is not an acceptable cost FFS!

  5. I have one word for those who would invest in nuclear power – FUKUSHIMA. Get your filthy money grubbing scam technology OFF OUR PLANET

  6. Wow. What an amazingly ignorant series of comments. Anyone who cares to look into the facts will see that nuclear is the safest form of energy production on earth (yes, including wind and solar), that waste storage problems are political, not technical, and that nuclear is an excellent option to reduce carbon emissions until renewables can bridge the gap (which no serious industry expert claims they are ready to do in the short or medium term). Anyone who wants to know more can easily look it up; these facts are widely available.

  7. NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS ARE IMMORAL. THEY CAUSE LEUKEMIA AND OTHER CANCERS. CHILDREN WHO LIVE NEAR NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS HAVE MORE INCIDENCES OF LEUKEMIA THAN CHILDREN WHO DO NOT – DR. IAN FAIRLIE TOLD US BACK IN 2014. MIT IS IMMORAL AND AMORAL TO BE DOING THIS. SHAME ON MIT AND ALL THOSE INVOVLED IN THIS EVIL VILE WICKED PLAN.

  8. Sheila Parks, EdD | June 16, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Reply

    NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS ARE IMMORAL. THEY CAUSE LEUKEMIA AND OTHER CANCERS. CHILDREN WHO LIVE NEAR NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS HAVE MORE INCIDENCES OF LEUKEMIA THAN CHILDREN WHO DO NOT – DR. IAN FAIRLIE TOLD US BACK IN 2014. MIT IS IMMORAL AND AMORAL TO BE DOING THIS. SHAME ON MIT AND ALL THOSE INVOVLED IN THIS EVIL VILE WICKED PLAN.

  9. If we want to make nuclear cost effective, we should take all of these hysterical, misinformed anti-nuclear people from these comments and from the different levels of government and send them to mandatory classes about physics and nuclear power.
    The widespread grotesque travesty of fear-based misinformation creates today’s political status quo where nuclear is being illogically forced out of operation. If we can start listening to scientists instead of anti-science activists, politics would bring nuclear growth and dramatic cost reductions.

  10. Nuclear energy pushers should go spend time at Fukushima helping with the clean up. Typing nuclear hype on line sitting at a computer doesn’t count.
    Future generations will wonder why we were so stupid.

  11. So how many commercial reactors has MIT designed, built and operated? The answer is zero.
    Looks to me like just another Ivory-tower academic exercise out-of-touch with reality. Just a waste of taxpayer money,

  12. I heard about these MSR reactors and this is something that was researched in 60s abandoned for nuclear weapons proliferation concerns. But this reaseach should be finished. This technology has great potential to be safe, cheap and economical on fuel use, so that existing sources of uranium and thorium would last virtually forever (like tens of thousands of years). Better than CO2 emmisions and fossil fuels that will be exhausted soon. Thermonuclear seems to be way too expensive to be a realistic replacement for the current energy sources.

  13. “…promising small modular reactor concept that aims to be competitive with natural gas…”
    Funny because wind and solar are already as cheap or cheaper than natural gas. Plus, because of rapid technological advances, wind and solar costs are dropping rapidly.
    I’m all for research and maybe there is a place for nuclear but nuclear power plants always come in way over budget and that doesn’t include the cost of the waste, the cost to decommission the plant and the massive subsidy nuclear received from laws that give nuclear plants very limited liability in case of accidents. Without that law (subsidy) zero plants could afford the insurance required to operate. In other words, when there’s a nuclear accident, we pay, not the plant owner.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price%E2%80%93Anderson_Nuclear_Industries_Indemnity_Act

  14. James E Hopf | June 17, 2020 at 11:46 am | Reply

    Most of the comments on this article are astonishing.

    No government agencies or formal scientific bodies recognize *any* public health impact from nuclear power under normal operation. Maximum doses to the public are thousands of times smaller than the levels at which any impacts are seen, and are also ~1% of natural background. Scientific consensus also holds that even Fukushima will never have any measurable public health impact. Fukushima being the only significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire 50+ year history.

    In stark contrast, fossil power generation (esp. coal) has caused on the order of 10 million deaths, in addition to global warming, over the last several decades. That is, on the order of 1000 deaths every single day. In other words, fossil generation’s *daily* impact far exceeds that of Fukushima, and nuclear power’s total impact over 50 years.

    Analyses show that the use of nuclear power has saved millions of lives over the decades (by replacing fossil generation) and it would have saved many millions more if not for political opposition, and baseless, unscientific attitudes like those expressed in this comment thread. Global warming would also not be as bad. And yet we have people on this thread calling the use of nuclear “immoral”. Quite the contrary. It is nuclear opponents like them who have the blood of millions of people (and much of the climate problem) on their hands.

  15. James E Hopf | June 17, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Reply

    As for the actual article, it’s great that scientists are finally starting to focus on cost reduction; cost being nuclear’s only real problem (it’s already the safest source). However, being scientists, they are trying to find technological solutions to what is mostly a non-scientific problem. Nuclear is struggling (on cost, etc.) due to political, sociological, psychological and public relations issues.

    Energy policies discriminate against nuclear by not giving it any credit for its lack of pollution and CO2 emissions. It should be treated the same, under policy, as solar and wind.

    An even bigger factor is the double standard with respect to regulations and QA requirements. Nuclear is held to unique, and uniquely costly and burdensome requirements, and that is the main reason for high costs. Those unique burdens are clearly unjustified, in a world where fossil power generators are allowed to inflict more harm (public deaths, climate impacts, etc..) than a worst-case meltdown every single day.

    Several decades ago, nuclear literally cost ~1/3 of what it does today (even accounting for inflation). They achieved those costs with decades-old technology and successfully generated clean power (with no public health or climate impact) for decades. That suggests that new technology is not what’s needed. The reason why costs tripled is the imposition of enormous regulatory burdens that were never justified.

    Personally, I think the focus of nuclear power research should be on providing well-grounded justification for reduced regulations and QA requirements, especially for SMRs and advanced reactors. Nuclear’s regulatory burdens will have to be remotely in line with the (small) level of hazard, if it is to succeed in the future.

  16. James E Hopf | June 17, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Reply

    Finally, in response to a couple of the specific comments:

    According to the IPCC itself, nuclear’s total net CO2 emissions (including all parts of the process) are negligible compared to fossil generation and are several times *lower* than hydro, biomass, geothermal and solar. Nuclear is roughly tied with wind as the lowest emitting source. No, there are no significant CO2 emissions associated with (very rare) nuclear accidents. Use of such arguments is grasping at straws.

    It may be true that the raw, per kW-hr generating cost for solar and wind may be lower than nuclear and fossil sources (e.g., gas), in *some* locations. (I’m not sure that it’s even cheaper than gas w/o subsidies.) But the raw generation cost is only part of the equation. At high penetration levels of intermittent sources like solar and wind, the cost of “integration” (i.e., large scale electricity storage, grid upgrades, etc..) is the majority of overall cost.

    Most analyses suggest that some mixture of nuclear and renewables would be the lowest-cost option for a non-emitting grid, since it would require far less energy storage capacity than a 100% renewable grid. The only question is what the optimum mix would be. The answer to that question mainly depends on the future costs of electricity storage and nuclear.

    The costs of plant decommissioning and waste management/disposal ARE included in nuclear power’s cost. (Those costs only amount to a fraction of a cent/kW-hr). That pays for waste management and disposal to the highest standards ever applied to any waste stream. Full containment of all wastes and toxins and assurance (using rigorous and conservative analysis) that the wastes will remain contained for as long as they remain hazardous. No other waste streams come close to meeting such standards.

    It is other energy sources (fossil and even solar) that do not include the costs of waste management and pollution in their price. Solar’s toxic waste stream is larger and longer-lasting than nuclear’s, and (unlike nuclear) they have no well-developed plan to handle their waste stream and ensure lack of harm. They have been given a pass, so far. Who knows how much responsible waste management and disposal would add to solar’s overall cost.

    Liability limitations are not unique to nuclear, but are ubiquitous for heavy industries. Also, as shown in the very Wiki article referred to by the earlier commenter, any subsidy associated with nuclear’s liability limitations (Price Anderson) amounts to less than 0.1 cent/kW-hr (you’ll have to do some math). The “free pollution” subsidy given to fossil generation and the direct subsidies given to solar and wind (on top of outright mandates for use) are a factor of ~100 larger.

    • George Fleming | June 17, 2020 at 7:49 pm | Reply

      James Hopf believes that he is a rational, unbiased expert on nuclear power. Yet he makes a claim about it for which he has no proof whatsoever, just another example of his obvious bias toward and irrationality about nuclear power:

      “…No, there are no significant CO2 emissions associated with (very rare) nuclear accidents. Use of such arguments is grasping at straws…”

      Stating something does not make it so. Hopf must either provide proof for his claims or remain silent.

      As I indicated in my earlier comment, he cannot provide any proof. We do not have any reason whatsoever to believe that nuclear power is low-carbon. That would require a vastly more complicated study than any we have now, including anything from the the IPCC.

  17. Re: Jim Hopf observations on regulatory cost. Fundamentally, the NRC represents over-regulation on steroids.
    The only way I see out of that swamp is a shift to completely passive fail-safe advanced reactors With the removal of reliance on active protection methods, the vast majority of NRC rules and are irrelevant and easily abandoned; Quality Assurance measures driven by these rules are also vastly reduced. The rules (e.g. regulatory guides, position papers, etc.) are administrative creations that can be administratively removed by the NRC. The Code of Federal Regulations is the law with which compliance must be achieved.
    Will this approach work? Should know by around the end of the year, as the approach is detailed in a book being prepared by a major publisher and authored by me.

  18. These comments are somewhat bizarre, and have little or no basis in reality. Nuclear power is used throughout the world, very safely. No one wants an accident, but it has been 40 Years since TMI, and 35 years since Chernobyl.

  19. James E Hopf | June 18, 2020 at 3:14 pm | Reply

    RE: George Fleming

    LOL! You are the one who is dismissing the opinion of the IPCC, the world’s most formal global warming body. An opinion that is based on an aggregation of a very large number of studies that have been done. Thus, it’s pretty clear that the burden of proof lies with you. There is near-universal scientific consensus that nuclear’s net CO2 emissions are extremely low.

    It would be like me asserting that wind turbines and solar panels are causing enormous numbers of cancer deaths, and emitting huge amounts of CO2, and saying that the burden of proof is on you (George) to prove otherwise.

    • George Fleming | June 19, 2020 at 3:04 am | Reply

      You still don’t get it, James Hopf. You are claiming to know what has yet to be shown.

      How much carbon pollution will result from the disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl? From the effort to deal with high-level nuclear waste? No one has studied these questions or several others of the kind, such as how much carbon pollution results from spending money on nuclear power that would be better spent elsewhere.

      I don’t dismiss the IPCC study or any others that investigate this question. I say that all of them combined do not come anywhere near to answering it. It is up to those who claim that nuclear power is low-carbon to prove it. It is an extremely difficult problem, and you don’t even begin to understand it.

  20. James E Hopf | June 18, 2020 at 3:29 pm | Reply

    RE: Mike Keller – Nuclear Regulations

    Mike,

    Your thoughts are very much in line with mine concerning nuclear regulations and QA standards. It’s great to see that others have seen the light.

    I’ve been saying that the main idea behind SMRs and advanced reactors is (or should be) that their fundamental, inherent lack of significant hazard should (finally) justify a fundamental reduction in regulations and (standard of perfection) QA requirements. That, as opposed to things like mass, assembly line fabrication, etc.., is the main reason why they could be economic.

    With large reactors, we gave up inherent safety in pursuit of economy of scale. Thus, having active components and operators perform was necessary to prevent a large release. That worked for awhile (while regs were still reasonable) and reactors were economical, ~1/3 to ~1/5 of today’s cost. But it’s no longer working now that the huge escalation of regulations and requirements have rendered large reactors (e.g., Vogtle) uncompetitive.

    With SMRs, we’re taking a leap in the other direction. We are surrendering economy of scale, but we are gaining dramatic, fundamental increases in inherent safety, and reductions in potential hazard.

    For many if not most of these designs, all components could fail and a significant release would still not occur. Due to small core sizes and other fundamental factors, maximum conceivable releases (even if a meltdown were somehow to occur) are vastly smaller than that which occurred at Fukushima. And even Fukushima caused few if any deaths….

    In other words, these SMRs and advanced reactors are fundamentally incapable of causing large-scale loss of life. They need to be regulated accordingly. If they are, nuclear can flourish, which would save millions of lives and greatly reduce the climate problem, by replacing fossil generators that emit harmful air pollution and CO2.

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