OSU research aids nuclear energy advance


CORVALLIS - An $8 million research program at Oregon State University has helped Westinghouse Electric Co. achieve certification on the first "passively safe" nuclear power reactor design that experts believe will herald the next generation of nuclear energy.

In the process, the expansive program has also catapulted OSU engineers into a leadership role for testing and evaluating nuclear safety concepts and provided many students a cutting-edge educational experience with the latest concepts in nuclear engineering, officials say.

"The certification of this reactor design is a major accomplishment for OSU," said Jose Reyes, a professor of nuclear engineering. "OSU now holds a unique position among universities throughout the world. It's the first university to have performed large scale, full system, nuclear safety tests for purposes of plant certification."

The certification of the "AP600" reactor design by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Reyes said, will eventually allow the construction of a new type of nuclear power plant that can be assembled from modular components and will rely on natural forces such as gravity, natural circulation, convection and evaporation to provide many of its key safety features.

Officials believe the plant will be the safest, most economical nuclear power plant ever designed, and could open the door to a rebirth of nuclear energy as a power source that does not produce the greenhouse gases typical of most fossil fuel power production plants.

OSU's role in this massive project was unusual for a research university, Reyes said, and a testament to the university's expanding role of collaborative research supported by private industry. Projects such as the one just completed at OSU are usually performed in national laboratories, because the quality assurance requirements and performance schedules are among the most stringent in the world.

OSU experts, working at times on a 24-hour shift, built a world-class test facility in only 13 months and completed a test program nearly nine months ahead of schedule, Reyes said. Thousands of documents, drawings, test procedures, and data plots had to be prepared, reviewed, approved, and periodically audited to meet the standards, Reyes said. The program passed audits from the Department of Energy, Westinghouse, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Electric Power Research Institute and a Presidential Advisory Committee.

But by working with OSU, Reyes said, the federal agencies and private industry were able to get the quality test data they needed at a fraction of the cost of a similar effort at a national laboratory. And in the process, 30 undergraduate and 10 graduate students at OSU gained an unusual level of experience working with the newest ideas in nuclear engineering.

"All of the graduate students who worked with the AP600 project have been actively pursued by industry," Reyes said. "Half of them were immediately hired by a single company."

To take continued advantage of the elaborate test facilities created at OSU as a result of this project, the Department of Energy has awarded the university a $1.2 million contract to help design a simplified multi-application light water reactor. This small power reactor would be capable of producing electricity while provided process heat or desalination capability. The proposed design would implement gravity-driven safety systems and only need to be re-fueled once every 10 years.

Reyes has recently met with the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, and members of Congress to discuss this project, the grant which will support it and novel designs for nuclear energy which will evolve in the next millennium.

Passive safety concepts, Reyes said, should be the key to renewed interest in nuclear power, both in the U.S. and around the world.

"A plant such as this with gravity-driven safety features, a 60-year operating life and short construction time should be very attractive," Reyes said. "In the future, utility companies will be looking for ways to generate energy at a reasonable cost while minimizing global warming. Nuclear power can respond to that need."

The AP600, experts say, has 50 percent fewer valves, 80 percent less piping, 70 percent less control cable, and 35 percent fewer pumps than traditional nuclear power plants. It will also be comparatively quick and economical to construct, and Westinghouse officials say they plan to aggressively market it throughout the world.

Nuclear energy still provides a significant portion of the electricity in the U.S., although development of new plants has been stalled in recent years by concerns about disposal of high level radioactive waste and other issues. In several other nations such as France and Japan, however, nuclear energy is still one of the most prominent providers of electricity and being actively developed.

Experts from some of those nations have been among the most interested in the tests at OSU and traveled frequently to the university to observe and participate in them, Reyes said.