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Sandia to Play Major Role in Creation of 'virtual' Nuclear Reactor

By Sandia National Laboratories

June 15, 2010

Sandia National Laboratories computational scientists will lead two of five technical areas in a U.S. Department of Energy effort to create a "virtual" nuclear reactor, to be headquartered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

This state-of-the-art simulator will use advanced capabilities of the world's most powerful computers to attempt significant leaps forward in nuclear reactor design, engineering and operation.

By creating a virtual model of a currently operating reactor, engineers should be able to improve nuclear reactor safety, increase reactor power production and extend reactor life and licenses over the near, mid, and long term.

The work, funded by a DOE award of up to $122 million over five years, will be coordinated from a Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub at ORNL.

The Hub, named the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), includes partners from universities, industry, and other national laboratories. CASL is tasked with delivering computer models that simulate nuclear power plant operations. These models would then be incorporated into a computational environment that forms a "virtual reactor" for the predictive simulation of light water reactors.

"Sandia fully supports the exceptionally strong CASL team assembled by ORNL," says Steve Rottler, Sandia's chief technology officer and vice president for Science and Technology. "Accomplishing the CASL vision is vital to the expansion of nuclear power and long-term energy security for our nation. I have full confidence that we can achieve our ambitious goals."

Sandia scientists and engineers will provide technical leadership and expertise in two of the five technical focus areas of the Hub: Virtual Reactor Integration (VRI), and Verification, Validation and Uncertainty Quantification (VUQ).

VRI focuses on the integration of computational models that will form the heart of the virtual reactor. "Accomplishing our mission will have an enormous impact in support of nuclear energy in this country, and I am thrilled to be part of it," says Randy Summers, manager of Sandia's Exploratory Simulation Technologies Department and co-lead of the VRI focus area that includes scientists from ORNL and Idaho National Laboratory.

Sandia scientists will also team with researchers from North Carolina State University to incorporate advanced methods for verification and validation of the computational models and for quantification of uncertainties as they are executed within the virtual reactor. Analyses using more tightly coupled models, with better-understood uncertainties, could support license applications for increased plant power levels, improved fuel burn-up and extended plant lifetimes.

"This Hub has the ability to transform the nuclear power industry through the research, development and application of new mathematical models, advanced computational methods and leading-edge high performance computing," says Jim Stewart, manager of Sandia's Optimization and Uncertainty Quantification Department and lead for the VUQ focus area within CASL. "Accomplishing Hub goals will require outstanding scientists to work together like never before possible. The CASL team has the broad background and experiences necessary to take on this exciting challenge."

Other institutional members of the CASL team are the Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto, CA; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville, TN; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI; Westinghouse Electric Company, Pittsburgh, PA.

DOE recently announced that the Hub will be funded at up to $22 million this fiscal year and then at an estimated $25 million per year for the next four years, subject to congressional appropriations.


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