MIT News - Nuclear Reactor Lab MIT News is dedicated to communicating to the media and the public the news and achievements of the students, faculty, staff and the greater MIT community. en Wed, 24 Jul 2019 14:00:01 -0400 A vision of nuclear energy buoyed by molten salt NSE graduate student Kieran Dolan tackles a critical technical challenge to fluoride-salt-cooled high-temperature nuclear reactors. Wed, 24 Jul 2019 14:00:01 -0400 Leda Zimmerman | Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering <p>Years before he set foot on the MIT campus, Kieran P. Dolan participated in studies conducted at MIT's Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL). As an undergraduate student majoring in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Dolan worked on components and sensors for MIT Reactor (MITR)-based experiments integral to designing fluoride-salt-cooled high-temperature nuclear reactors, known as FHRs.</p> <p>Today, as a second-year doctoral student in MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Dolan is a hands-on investigator at the NRL, deepening his research engagement with this type of next-generation reactor.</p> <p>"I've been interested in advanced reactors for a long time, so it's been really nice to stay with this project and learn from people working here on-site," says Dolan.&nbsp;</p> <p>This series of studies on FHRs is part of a multiyear collaboration among MIT, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of California at Berkeley, funded by an Integrated Research Project (IRP) Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The nuclear energy community sees great promise in the FHR concept because molten salt transfers heat very efficiently, enabling such advanced reactors to run at higher temperatures and with several unique safety features compared to the current fleet of water-cooled commercial reactors.<br /> &nbsp;<br /> "Molten salt reactors offer an approach to nuclear energy that is both economically viable and safe," says Dolan.</p> <p>For the purposes of the FHR project, the MITR reactor simulates the likely operating environment of a working advanced reactor, complete with high temperatures in the experimental capsules. The FHR concept Dolan has been testing envisions billiard-ball-sized composites of fuel particles suspended within a circulating flow of molten salt — a special blend of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride called flibe. This salt river constantly absorbs and distributes the heat produced by the fuel's fission reactions.&nbsp;<br /> &nbsp;<br /> But there is a formidable technical challenge to the salt coolants used in FHRs. "The salt reacts with the neutrons released during fission, and produces tritium," explains Dolan. "Tritium is one of hydrogen’s isotopes, which are notorious for permeating metal." Tritium is a potential hazard if it gets into water or air. "The worry is that tritium might escape as a gas through an FHR's heat exchanger or other metal components."</p> <p>There is a potential workaround to this problem: graphite, which can trap fission products and suck up tritium before it escapes the confines of a reactor. "While people have determined that graphite can absorb a significant quantity of hydrogen, no one knows with certainty where the tritium is going to end up in the reactor,” says Dolan. So, he is focusing his doctoral research on MITR experiments to determine how effectively graphite performs as a sponge for tritium — a critical element required to model tritium transport in the complete reactor system.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>"We want to predict where the tritium goes and find the best solution for containing it and extracting it safely, so we can achieve optimal performance in flibe-based reactors," he says.</p> <p>While it's early, Dolan has been analyzing the results of three MITR experiments subjecting various types of specialized graphite samples to neutron irradiation in the presence of molten salt. "Our measurements so far indicate a significant amount of tritium retention by graphite," he says. "We're in the right ballpark."</p> <p>Dolan never expected to be immersed in the electrochemistry of salts, but it quickly became central to his research portfolio. Enthused by math and physics during high school in Brookfield, Wisconsin, he swiftly oriented toward nuclear engineering in college. "I liked the idea of making useful devices, and I was especially interested in nuclear physics with practical applications, such as power plants and energy," he says.</p> <p>At UW Madison, he earned a spot in an engineering physics material research group engaged in the FHR project, and he assisted in purifying flibe coolants, designing and constructing probes for measuring salt's corrosive effect on reactor parts, and experimenting on the electrochemical properties of molten fluoride salts. Working with&nbsp;<a href="">Exelon Generation</a>&nbsp;as a reactor engineer after college convinced him he was more suited for research in next-generation projects than in the day-to-day maintenance and operation of a commercial nuclear plant.&nbsp;</p> <p>"I was interested in innovation and improving things," he says. "I liked being part of the FHR IRP, and while I didn't have a passion for electrochemistry, I knew it would be fun working on a solution that could advance a new type of reactor."</p> <p>Familiar with the goals of the FHR project, MIT facilities, and personnel, Dolan was able to jump rapidly into studies analyzing MITR's irradiated graphite samples. Under the supervision of&nbsp;<a href="">Lin-wen Hu</a>, his advisor and NRL research director, as well as MITR engineers&nbsp;<a href="">David Carpenter</a>&nbsp;and&nbsp;<a href="">Gordon Kohse</a>, Dolan came up to speed in reactor protocol. He's found on-site participation in experiments thrilling.</p> <p>"Standing at the top of the reactor as it starts and the salt heats up, anticipating when the tritium comes out, manipulating the system to look at different areas, and then watching the measurements come in — being involved with that is really interesting in a hands-on way," he says.&nbsp;</p> <p>For the immediate future, "the main focus is getting data," says Dolan. But eventually "the data will predict what happens to tritium in different conditions, which should be the main driving force determining what to do in actual commercial FHR reactor designs."</p> <p>For Dolan, contributing to this next phase of advanced reactor development would prove the ideal next step following his doctoral work. This past summer, Dolan interned at&nbsp;<a href="">Kairos Power</a>, a nuclear startup company formed by the UC Berkeley collaborators on two DOE-funded FHR IRPs. Kairos Power continues to develop FHR technology by leveraging major strategic investments that the DOE has made at universities and national laboratories, and has recently started collaborating with MIT.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>"I've built up a lot of experience in FHRs so far, and there's a lot of interest at MIT and beyond in reactors using molten salt concepts," he says. "I will be happy to apply what I've learned to help accelerate a new generation of safe and efficient reactors."</p> "I've been interested in advanced reactors for a long time, so it's been really nice to stay with this project and learn from people working here on site," says Kieran Dolan. Photo: Gretchen ErtlNuclear science and engineering, School of Engineering, Profile, Students, Nuclear power and reactors, Energy, graduate, Graduate, postdoctoral, Nuclear Reactor Lab, Renewable energy New team to lead MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory Gordon Kohse, Jacopo Buongiorno, and Lance Snead will co-lead the laboratory; David Moncton will step down after 15 years of service. Mon, 15 Jul 2019 11:30:58 -0400 Office of the Vice President for Research <p>The Office of the Vice President for Research announced the appointment of a new leadership team for the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL). The team will consist of Gordon Kohse, managing director for operations; Jacopo Buongiorno, science and technology director and director for strategic R&amp;D partnerships; and Lance Snead, senior advisor for strategic partnerships and business development and leader of the NRL Irradiation Materials Sciences Group. The team will succeed David Moncton, who plans to return to his research after taking a department head sabbatical. Moncton has served as director of the NRL since 2004.</p> <p>The new leadership team will collectively oversee an updated organizational model for the NRL that will allow the laboratory to more closely align its operations with the scientific research agenda of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and other MIT researchers. “I look forward to working with this thoughtful and experienced team as they implement their vision for a vibrant operation supporting the critical work of our research community,” says Maria Zuber, vice president for research.</p> <p>Kohse, a principal research scientist with the NRL and previously the deputy director of research and services, has worked with the NRL for over 40 years, ensuring the smooth operation of experiments at the laboratory. As managing director for operations, Kohse will oversee reactor operations, the newly created program management group, quality assurance, and the irradiation engineering group, and will work closely with Lance Snead on overseeing the Irradiation Materials Sciences Group. Kohse says, “I look forward to a new chapter in my work at the NRL. This is an exciting opportunity to build on the skills and dedication of the laboratory staff and to renew and strengthen cooperation with MIT faculty. My goal is to continue safe, reliable operation of the reactor, and to expand its capabilities in the service of expanding missions in nuclear research and education.”</p> <p>In his new NRL leadership role, Jacopo Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, will oversee the NRL’s Centers for Irradiation Materials Science. These centers will focus on a variety of research questions ranging from new nuclear fuels, to in-core sensors, to nuclear materials degradation. All experimental research utilizing the MIT reactor will be coordinated through the Centers for Irradiation Materials Science. Ongoing and installed programs will be managed through the program management group.</p> <p>Buongiorno is also the director of the Center for Advanced Energy Systems (CANES), which is one of eight Low-Carbon-Energy Centers (LCEC) of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI); he is also the director of the recently completed <a href="">MIT study</a> on the Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World.&nbsp;</p> <p>Buongiorno and Snead, an MIT research scientist and former corporate fellow with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will spearhead efforts to expand external collaborations with federal and industry sponsors and work with MIT’s faculty to identify ways the NRL can provide the needed experimental support for their research and education objectives. “Our vision is to grow the MIT reactor value to MIT’s own research community as well as position it at the center of the worldwide efforts to develop new nuclear technologies that contribute to energy security and decarbonization of the global economy,” says Buongiorno.&nbsp;</p> <p>This new leadership team will build on NRL’s accomplishments under the direction of David Moncton. Moncton was instrumental in the 20-year relicensing of the reactor, led the NRL in developing the research program which boasts the most productive and innovative program for in-core studies of structural materials, new fuel cladding composites, new generations of nuclear instrumentation based on ultrasonic sensors and fiber optics, and studies of the properties of liquid salt in a radiation environment for use as a coolant in a new generation of high-temperature reactors. The NRL has become a key partner of the Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) sponsored by Idaho National Laboratory, and it has established a world-class reputation for its in-core irradiation program.</p> <p>Anne White, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, notes, “The unique capabilities of NRL together with the Centers for Irradiation Materials Science will create a new and exciting nexus for nuclear-related research and education at MIT, opening up opportunities not only for faculty in the nuclear science and engineering department (Course 22), but across the entire Institute.”</p> <p>The new leadership team will begin their tenure effective Aug. 1, 2019.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> Left to right: Gordon Kohse, Jacopo Buongiorno, Lance SneadPhotos courtesy of the researchersNuclear Reactor Lab, Nuclear science and engineering, School of Engineering, Nuclear power and reactors, Faculty, Staff, Administration, Renewable energy Eva Lisowski: Pushing the limits Nuclear science and engineering major and ROTC cadet studies and trains hard for a future of national service. Wed, 19 Dec 2018 11:10:00 -0500 Leda Zimmerman | Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering <p>Eva Lisowski doesn’t do things by halves. “I love pushing myself to a higher standard,” says the MIT junior, who is pursuing nuclear science and engineering (NSE) on a four-year U.S. Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship. Her drive applies not just to cadet training, but also to academics and MIT extracurricular activities.</p> <p>“I want to make choices, even difficult ones, that don't leave me wondering later why I hadn't taken a risk,” she says.</p> <p>One example of how Lisowski embraces a challenge: majoring in nuclear science. Her interest in the field dates back to eighth grade, when fellow students in a science class expressed opposition to nuclear energy. “My classmates said that nuclear radiation from plants could hurt people and believed it was nothing but dangerous,” she recalls. “But I always questioned when people hated things, and I wanted to learn the truth about nuclear energy for myself.”</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>Armed with this determination, Lisowski arrived at MIT. But tackling the fundamentals of the field proved demanding.</p> <p>“I came to MIT without an intuitive understanding for what a reactor was — what fission and neutrons are,” she says. “Starting from nothing was really hard.”</p> <p>Growing up in Troy, Michigan, the daughter of an engineer at the Ford Motor Company, she had a facility for math, and an interest in the built world around her.</p> <p>“As a kid, you see cars, buildings, and bridges, and even if you don't know how engines or other things work, you have more opportunity to get exposed to the mechanics,” Lisowski says. “But nuclear reactors are farther from the public eye, and more mysterious.”</p> <p>Although it has sometimes posed a struggle, Lisowski has nearly completed her required NSE coursework. She has also begun undergraduate research work, first with the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL), and most recently at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.</p> <p>“At the NRL, I learned how to calibrate and manually control a scanning electron microscope that we used to examine irradiated samples for microstructural flaws,” she says. “It was really cool because it turned out to be the same scope that my advisor, Professor [Michael] Short, used as an undergraduate.”</p> <p>The second research opportunity involves implanting deuterium into stainless steel using particle accelerator beams. While the work is just getting started, Lisowski is excited “to be practicing new skills rather than just doing P-sets,” she says. “And there's a possibility I could turn this research into an undergraduate thesis.”</p> <p>Along with classes and research, Lisowski will maintain her strenuous ROTC regimen, which includes three early morning training sessions, as well as field training exercises. She is especially excited about the ROTC's leadership opportunities, which often involve talking in front of people and planning things on short notice. “I really like being put on the spot,” she says.</p> <p>Among her favorite exercises: the 18-minute drill. It’s a combat scenario conducted out in the field, where Lisowski and a partner must map out, instruct and execute an ambush or reconnaissance plan in 18 minutes.</p> <p>“We have to figure out who’s doing what and convey it to our cadre, right then and there,” she says. “The ROTC teaches you how to make decisions quickly, get something done, and helps you learn how to function effectively in stressful environments.”</p> <p>Lisowski, who engaged in Civil Air Patrol search and rescue work during high school, wholeheartedly commits to her cadet training. “In the military, instructors yell at you and make things physically hard because they want to push you toward excellence,” she says. “I love performing these exercises, which teach military values of respect, loyalty, and purpose.”</p> <p>While Lisowski says it is too early to nail down her post-MIT career plans, she believes she will be ready to serve as an officer in the U.S. Army. But because she also finds the idea of intelligence work exciting, she plans to take policy courses “focusing on the security aspects of nuclear,” she says.</p> <p>Lisowski feels the biggest challenge for her final years at MIT will be “balancing ROTC and school life.” She doesn't just mean academics. Because she recently joined a cooking co-op, Lisowski must figure out how to prepare favorite meals like fettucine Alfredo with mushrooms and broccoli for eight — after spending a day in field training.</p> <p>Lisowski has another extracurricular commitment testing her time-management skills, one that seems especially fitting for someone eager to live life at its fullest. She is president of the <a href=";" target="_self">MIT Spinning Arts Club</a>. And no, it has nothing to do with bicycles, fabrics, or ceramics.</p> <p>“Imagine a light saber with two ends on fire that you perform with,” she explains. Combining a martial art with juggling, dance and craft design, it’s an activity that Lisowski runs, with weekly meetings and shows in the Stata amphitheater. Her unique take on spinning involves a kind of ballet-spinning arts fusion, with a flaming staff. She also enjoys partner performances, and sometimes even fire-eating.</p> <p>It looks kind of risky, but Lisowski wouldn't have it any other way.</p> <p>“I believe in living with no regrets,” she says. “Once I make a decision to do something, I do not look back.”</p> “I want to make choices, even difficult ones, that don't leave me wondering later why I hadn't taken a risk,” says MIT junior Eva Lisowski.Photo: Gretchen ErtlSchool of Engineering, Nuclear science and engineering, Nuclear Reactor Lab, Profile, ROTC, Nuclear power and reactors, Students, Undergraduate On 75th anniversary of first nuclear fission reactor, MIT stages tribute to seminal experiment MIT’s historic graphite exponential pile has been restored as a tool for education and research. Mon, 04 Dec 2017 17:30:00 -0500 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office <p>On Dec. 2 1942, under the stands at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field football stadium, Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi led an experimental team that produced humankind’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction — an event that marked the dawn of the nuclear era, enabling the development of the first atomic bomb and the first nuclear power reactors.</p> <p>To commemorate the first criticality of the Chicago Pile (CP-1), exactly 75 years later, MIT on Saturday restored a device similar the one used for that epochal event in Chicago. The Institute's subcritical experimental facility is similar to those used during development of the CP-1 reactor and its landmark sustained nuclear chain reaction.</p> <p>The anniversary event was not merely a novelty. The researchers have revived a device, called a graphite exponential pile and originally built in 1957, that over the coming years will provide hands-on access to subcritical nuclear experiments for MIT’s students, and serve as a unique and valuable research tool that can be used to study new reactor designs for future nuclear power plants.</p> <p>The device is essentially just a large cube-shaped pile of blocks made of pure graphite — the material used as the “lead” of a pencil — with holes drilled through to allow insertion of rods of uranium. These natural-uranium rods have such low radiation emissions that they could be safely handled with bare hands, as Fermi and his collaborators did in 1942 (though in this case they will be handled with protective gloves anyway).</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>In the decades following Fermi’s original experiment, more than two dozen similar graphite pile devices were built at universities and national laboratories around the country and used for basic research and teaching, but over the years most of those have been disposed of. The one at MIT, which though only half as big as Fermi’s original was the largest of these other installations, escaped that fate but had been unused and forgotten for many years, until being “rediscovered” last year by professor Michael Short of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.</p> <p>Kord Smith, the KEPCO Professor of the Practice of Nuclear Science and Engineering, was surprised to learn that the device was still intact. Covered in protective metal panels that made it look like a disused storage cabinet, it went unnoticed even by students and faculty working near it. Smith, working with colleagues in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and David Moncton, director of the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory and his staff, quickly formulated a plan to restore the device for the 75th anniversary of the original groundbreaking experiment. MIT nuclear science and engineering student Richard Knapp made the design and construction of the system the subject of his BS thesis in 1957.</p> <p>Now, with the device and its 30 tons of graphite and 2.5 tons of uranium fully cleaned and restored, the final slugs of uranium were ceremonially slid into place on Dec. 2 to complete the system. This took place before an invited group of 49 faculty, students, and guests — the same number who were present with Fermi in Chicago — at the precise time of the original experiment.</p> <p>Smith explains that MIT’s subcritical graphite pile originally fell into disuse as the nuclear industry quickly shifted from graphite-based reactor designs to alternatives based on light water, heavy water, or liquid sodium. Experiments with the graphite system were thus seen as less relevant. In these devices, graphite (or water) serves as a moderator that slows down the speed of neutrons emanating from a radiation source, by a factor of more than a million, to get them to interact with other uranium atoms and initiate a self-sustaining chain reaction in which neutrons knock other neutrons out of an atom’s nucleus to create a cascade of collisions. Criticality of the much larger CP-1 graphite pile was controlled by inserting or withdrawing control rods, made of cadmium, to absorb the neutrons and interrupt the reaction.</p> <p>Today, a wide variety of cutting-edge designs for proposed next-generation nuclear reactors, including designs that have passive cooling systems or continuous operation without requiring shutdowns for refueling, do once again make use of graphite, so the reactor is once again a useful research tool. Such a tool will permit students to actually handle nuclear fuel and be more accessible to students than full-scale nuclear reactors such as MIT’s own research reactor, which runs almost continuously and produces 6 megawatts of thermal power. Experiments done in that reactor, to study new kinds of fuel-rod cladding or new instruments for monitoring the reactions, for example, typically run for a year at a time.</p> <p>Students will be able to install, run, and get results from experiments in the graphite exponential pile within a few hours or days, Smith says. Use of the graphite pile is anticipated to stimulate students’ interest in, and preparation for, performing cutting-edge experiments on the much more powerful MIT research reactor.</p> <p>“Graphite as a medium for reactors has come and gone a few times over the years,” he says, but now, “we’re in the midst of a rebirth.” And even today, there are still significant aspects of exactly how neutrons from nuclear reactions scatter through the crystal lattice of graphite. In fact, Smith says, a new physics model to describe these interactions has recently been proposed, and using the graphite pile “we want to design experiments to test these new theoretical models.”</p> <p>In addition to doing experiments that could help in the development of new reactor designs, fuel, and cladding types, or measurement systems, this device and the MIT reactor will be a valuable educational tools for nuclear engineers, Smith says. “We tend to get students who are very good at developing computational algorithms and models. But if you don’t have something to compare your calculations with, you start to think your simulations are perfect.” In the real world, though, the actual measurements usually don’t agree perfectly with predictions, and understanding such differences often lead to the development of improved theoretical models, he says.</p> The Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Nuclear Reactor Lab celebrated the 75th anniversary of CP-1’s first human-made nuclear fission chain reaction. Pieces of reactor-grade graphite, identical to that used in MIT’s graphite exponential pile, were cut to make souvenirs for the event. Image: Gretchen Ertl Research, education, Education, teaching and academics, Special events and guest speakers, Nuclear science and engineering, School of Engineering, History of MIT, Nuclear power and reactors, Carbon, Nuclear Reactor Lab, History Sarah Don: Building nuclear connections MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory&#039;s superintendent works to give more students the opportunity to work with and learn from the reactor. Mon, 20 Nov 2017 16:40:00 -0500 Stefanie Koperniak | Nuclear Reactor Lab <p>Sarah Don says she never expected to land in a management role, but the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) alumna&nbsp;did just that a couple of years ago when she became assistant superintendent of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL) and was promoted to superintendent last year.<br /> <br /> “The MIT reactor kick-started my career in nuclear engineering,” says Don ’14, SM ’14. “This role was a wonderful opportunity that came up a couple of years ago, and I've really embraced it.”</p> <p>In the demanding, multi-faceted position of superintendent, which involves a lot of planning and communication&nbsp;as well as physics and engineering skills, Don leads a team of reactor operators and support staff “who are dedicated to maintaining a robust safety culture and a reliable, world-class experimental facility,” she says. She is also responsible for regulatory compliance, helping to mentor student operators, and&nbsp;prioritizing the reactor’s maintenance activities. Her work often requires balancing schedule expectations (such as irradiating a sample by a certain time) with very high safety standards.<br /> <br /> “I care a lot about the staff who work here and their safety, so I have to make sure we do things the right way, the safe way, 100 percent of the time,”&nbsp;Don&nbsp;says.&nbsp;“We have a highly skilled and experienced team, and we’re proud of the way we work efficiently and safely to keep the reactor running to support education and research.”<br /> <br /> Don’s work supports one of the NRL's&nbsp;missions to expand its outreach throughout the MIT community, helping MIT students, faculty, and research staff — including those outside of NSE — to learn more about how the reactor works and how it might enhance their own research efforts. She says that one of her goals as superintendent “is to facilitate as much connection as possible between the reactor and lab courses and the student population on campus,” so she reaches out to MIT classes who might be able to use the reactor for supervised, educational experiences. Likewise, the new NRL Seed Program aims to enable more MIT faculty and research staff to utilize the reactor for their research. Additionally, the NRL offers access for Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program&nbsp;work and thesis&nbsp;research.<br /> <br /> Don’s pathway to nuclear science started early&nbsp;— before she was even admitted as an MIT undergraduate. She participated in the Research Science Institute, a science and engineering summer program for high school students, and was placed with Michael Driscoll, now professor emeritus of NSE.<br /> <br /> “Learning about reactor physics and neutronics codes with Professor Driscoll was a very positive research experience for me,” says Don, “It got me interested in nuclear engineering — and also introduced me to the reactor and the idea that I could be a reactor operator.”<br /> <br /> Once at MIT, she pursued that goal and embarked upon the very rigorous reactor operator training, which takes place over several months and requires an excellent memory, strong attention to detail, and an understanding of mechanical systems.<br /> <br /> “The attention to detail required to be a reactor operator and the sense of responsibility appealed to me — as well as the research that we do here,” she says Don.</p> <p>Trainees start by reading materials provided by the Nuclear Reactor Lab to learn how the reactor is built and how it works, what is going on inside the reactor core, and how the reactor responds to operator interaction and various outside conditions. Once they have a solid understanding, trainees operate the reactor under the supervision of the training supervisor. After completing the requirements for the training program, they take the license exam, which is administered by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). An NRC examiner comes to MIT and spends several hours with each candidate for an in-depth interview portion and walk-through of the facility designed to test candidates’ knowledge of the reactor. All of this is followed by a written exam.<br /> <br /> Don says that the mostly hands-on&nbsp;nature of the training was tremendously valuable, helping her to gain experience and a fundamental understanding”of how mechanical systems work, how nuclear reactors work, and how people interact with systems and controls.<br /> <br /> “I believe that training to be a reactor operator was a valuable hands-on experience that complemented and enhanced my understanding&nbsp;of the NSE course material,” she says. “It's wonderful to now be able to mentor our current student operators, knowing that they are gaining unique experience while becoming valuable members of the reactor operations team.”</p> <p>Don seeks to build interest in the reactor beyond the MIT community, as well — including to high school students worldwide — through content on the NRL website. She recently helped to create some new videos that provide a glimpse into what an operator does and some examples of experiments that can be done with reactor.</p> “I care a lot about the staff who work here and their safety,” MIT Nuclear Reactor Superintendent Sarah Don says, “so I have to make sure we do things the right way — the safe way — 100 percent of the time."Photo: Gretchen ErtlSchool of Engineering, Energy, Nuclear power and reactors, Nuclear science and engineering, Staff, Nuclear Reactor Lab, Alumni/ae MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory launches seed grant program New program eases access to the MIT Reactor for MIT faculty and research staff. Thu, 21 Sep 2017 16:55:01 -0400 Stefanie Koperniak | Nuclear Reactor Lab <p>The MIT Reactor (MITR), built in the 1950s and a long-time presence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, serves as a valuable test bed for research that might have significant impacts on the future. The mission of this nuclear fission reactor is not to generate electricity;&nbsp;rather, it serves as an experimental environment to irradiate materials and characterize their modified properties — critical steps in the development of materials that can withstand radiation for many applications. The current version of the six-megawatt reactor (MITR-II), redesigned and rebuilt in the 1970s, is the second-largest university research reactor in the U.S. and the only one located on the campus of a major research university.</p> <p>The reactor is operated by the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL), an interdepartmental center that has long supported education and research in areas such as nuclear fission engineering, materials science, radiation effects in biology and medicine, neutron physics, geochemistry, and environmental studies.</p> <p>Lin-wen Hu, NRL director of research and services and senior research scientist, says that although the reactor is available to MIT researchers — she used it for her own doctoral thesis research, for example&nbsp;— the majority of current users are from industry, national labs, and other academic institutions.</p> <p>“We’re very fortunate that the MIT administration has supported the reactor since its inception,” says Hu. “We want to broaden the user base of the reactor — including increasing access for the MIT community.”</p> <p>The new <a href="" target="_blank">NRL Seed Program</a> will give a few selected projects of MIT faculty and research staff cost-free access to the reactor’s experimental facilities, instruments, and technical support. This program has two main goals: to cultivate new research areas and to generate data in support of pursuing externally funded research proposals. The ability to use the reactor free-of-cost is a tremendous opportunity, as running an experiment in a nuclear reactor can cost from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.</p> <p>Hu says that the NRL research and services group she started to assist users for research projects “has reached critical mass,” and has the infrastructure and expertise in place to work with more MIT faculty and research staff.</p> <p>Four different categories of experiments, described in detail on the <a href="" target="_blank">program webpage</a>, will be considered for funding. These include:&nbsp;small-scale dedicated irradiation experiments,&nbsp;shared use in-core experiments,&nbsp;neutron beams and instruments, and&nbsp;materials characterization and post-irradiation evaluation.</p> <p>A variety of different research applications might benefit from experiments using the reactor. For example, it could be used for testing a wide range of materials or sensors — such as those proposed for a next-generation reactor or for a robot that might be built to clean up after a nuclear incident — to understand how their properties change in a radiation environment. Research might involve using a neutron beam port, which provides neutrons to probe a material structure, or neutron activation analysis to detect even very small amounts of an element in a material.</p> <p>Research submitted for the grant program can be done in collaboration with industry, national labs, or other universities, but the lead researcher submitting the project must be an MIT faculty or research staff member. Projects should demonstrate that early results or data will lead to proposals for external funding. Submission deadlines are Oct. 15, 2017&nbsp;and April 15, 2018, and selected proposals will be announced a few weeks after each deadline.</p> The blue glow of Cerenkov radiation emanates from the core of MIT's reactor.Photo: MIT Nuclear Reactor LabFunding, Grants, Research, Collaboration, Nuclear Reactor Lab, Nuclear science and engineering, Nuclear power and reactors, School of Engineering David Carpenter: Purpose driven to the core Nuclear scientist David Carpenter found his calling at MIT&#039;s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory — improving the performance and safety of nuclear power plants. Fri, 19 May 2017 10:40:01 -0400 Leda Zimmerman | Nuclear Reactor Lab <p>When he first reported to MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL) as an undergraduate in 2002, David Carpenter&nbsp;anticipated a challenging research opportunity. To his surprise, he found his calling.</p> <p>It all began with a project investigating durable new materials for use in reactors.</p> <p>“We were testing silicon carbide, which looked like a good possibility for an accident-tolerant fuel,” recalls Carpenter ’06, SM ’06, PhD ’10. “We were irradiating it inside the reactor — it was the first time anyone had ever done this — and I realized that when we pulled the material out, we would get to see something no one had ever seen before,” he says.</p> <p>After 15 years at the NRL conducting research and&nbsp;earning degrees in nuclear science and engineering, Carpenter’s appetite for scientific discovery remains sharp, as does his commitment to improving both the performance and safety of current and next-generation nuclear reactors. Today, as the group leader for reactor experiments, he juggles projects brought to the facility by industry, government, and academic institutions. Throughout this time, he says he has never lost his appreciation for the NRL as a singular laboratory for scientific discovery.</p> <p>“I see the reactor as a machine that generates radiation for testing, and when you put things inside, you can get knowledge out,” he says. “I also appreciate that I get to work each day with this machine and understand how really unique it is, and to some people, maybe a bit mysterious.”</p> <p>It’s a job that also provides purpose.&nbsp;“I do have a sense of mission, an interest in pushing nuclear engineering to gain more acceptance, developing a real piece of technology for the future that can bring a carbon-free source of substantial energy,” he says.</p> <p>The MIT Reactor (MITR) is a light-water cooled facility and&nbsp;one of the few on-campus reactors&nbsp;of its kind. It operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per&nbsp;week throughout the year,&nbsp;except for planned maintenance and refueling. While a highly-skilled staff operates and monitors the facility, Carpenter’s role means that he is always on call. “If anything happens to the experiment, or if there are any interruptions in reactor operations, I’ll be involved,” he says.</p> <p>On a typical day, Carpenter tends to what he calls “the care and feeding of experiments” which take place in three separate research environments situated in the reactor core. All three&nbsp;rely on the MITR for a radiation environment, but each can be tuned to produce specific pressures and temperatures in gas, water or other media. The MITR serves as an ideal facility for developing and testing materials and instruments that can&nbsp;withstand the most extreme conditions and meet the challenges of nuclear reactor operations.</p> <p>Among the projects Carpenter is shepherding are several with the potential to make critical impacts on the nuclear energy industry. One&nbsp;is the continuation of his silicon carbide research, which was the subject of both his master’s and PhD&nbsp;dissertations, and which triggered significant interest outside of academia.</p> <p>Carpenter’s focus has involved deploying silicon carbide, a type of ceramic, as a first-line containment barrier in reactors. Since the 1950s, Carpenter explains, nuclear reactors have used uranium pellets stacked up in fuel rods made of zirconium alloys. “These rods are the first barrier against the release of radioactive material from the reactor, but as we’ve seen at the incidents at Fukushima and Three Mile Island, they can melt down in certain circumstances.”</p> <p>In contrast, silicon carbide in a reactor “gets really hot and sits there and just takes it, without getting soft and melting,” Carpenter says. Using MITR, he has subjected the material to the kinds of temperatures, water pressures, and chemistries that might be found in a full-power&nbsp;reactor. “We’ve gone through many iterations in a process lasting over 15 years, with many tweaks along the way,” he says.</p> <p>Carpenter believes this research has game-changing potential. “You could retrofit hundreds of existing reactors, making them much safer and more reliable overnight,” he says. But shifting to silicon carbide as an acceptable fuel cladding faces a number of challenges. Government and industry require a degree of certainty about new materials that necessitates more in-reactor testing.</p> <p>“Silicon carbide remains a very promising material, and it’s sitting in our reactor even as we speak,” he says. But there are also concerns that some of the ceramic can dissolve in water and&nbsp;travel downstream, and that the material may not have the necessary level of “elastic forgiveness,” he says, tending to crack and shatter under stress.</p> <p>Nevertheless, for Carpenter, this represents a fascinating engineering challenge. He imagines solutions that might involve weaving silicon fibers to achieve the required ductility, to enable a ceramic material to behave like a metal under some circumstances.</p> <p>As he investigates these possibilities, Carpenter is also invested in novel work on behalf of clients. Among these is a multi-university project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a high-temperature, salt-cooled reactor. “The design is intrinsically safe because the fuel doesn’t melt, and the salt can withstand high temperatures without requiring thick, pressurized containment buildings,” he says. “You can generate more power, more efficiently, and salt-cooled reactors are inherently much safer,” he says.</p> <p>The challenges to designing this new kind of reactor involve finding optimal construction materials, since super-hot&nbsp;radioactive salt is highly&nbsp;corrosive. Carpenter is tasked with figuring out how to configure the MITR to simulate a reactor operating at 700 degrees Celsius&nbsp;with molten salt. He must also contend with the radioactive tritium that is released when neutron radiation hits salt.</p> <p>“Much of our work involves creating a special environment in the reactor,” he says. “Our job is to help clients figure out a practical way of answering the questions they’re posing.”</p> <p>To perform his job, Carpenter must be a jack of all trades, whether using robot arms to manipulate&nbsp;projects in the reactor hot cells, or performing computational simulations. “I get to have a hand in pretty much everything, from plumbing, electrical work, and programming to conceptual design and installations,” he says.</p> <p>This comes naturally to the former Eagle Scout from Atlanta who also enjoyed assembling scale models of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise. He says&nbsp;a “bring a parent to school” event helped&nbsp;seed&nbsp;his interest in nuclear energy. “A parent who worked for a nuclear utility company brought plastic fuel pellets to our class, and told us that one actual nuclear pellet represented tons of coal and barrels of oil,” he recalls. “I took that pellet home and taped it to my wall, and the idea that nuclear energy could do that really stuck with me.”</p> <p>When Carpenter arrived at MIT, a classmate easily nudged him toward pursuing nuclear science and engineering as a major. It was a short leap&nbsp;for Carpenter to seek out work at the campus reactor.</p> <p>“I got involved in research I liked, and kept doing it, with different experiments blossoming into my undergraduate thesis, then my graduate thesis, and then it seemed natural to keep working in the same lab,” he says.</p> <p>Though he never intended to stay this long, Carpenter says he is “really happy" with the work going on at the NRL. He says he is seeing a new wave of interest in nuclear technology research, and looks forward to cultivating students who bring the kind of commitment he felt when he first joined.</p> <p>“It would be great to stay long enough to see the silicon carbide materials program grow from sketches on paper to being implemented in reactors,” he says. “I hope I’ll be around to see it.”</p> “I do have a sense of mission, an interest in pushing nuclear engineering to gain more acceptance, developing a real piece of technology for the future that can bring a carbon-free source of substantial energy,” says MIT's David Carpenter.Photo: Susan YoungProfile, Nuclear power and reactors, Energy, Nuclear science and engineering, Staff, School of Engineering, Nuclear Reactor Lab Exelon Generation supports research on advanced nuclear fuel cladding coatings Exelon Generation funding for the MIT Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems could transform the performance of the fuel cladding in light water reactors. Wed, 19 Apr 2017 16:50:01 -0400 Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering <p>Assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering Michael Short and collaborators — professors Bilge Yildiz, Matteo Bucci, and Evelyn Wang, as well as the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory and the Westinghouse Electric Company — have received funding from Exelon Generation to support research which could transform the performance of the fuel cladding in light water reactors (LWRs).</p> <p>Four known issues can impact the safe and reliable operation of LWR fuel cladding. They include fretting and wear from grid-to-rod-fretting and foreign material; the buildup of porous corrosion deposits; hydrogen absorption; and boiling crisis. Fretting can wear through the fuel cladding, while deposits and hydrogen absorption can lead to corrosion-based fuel failure, respectively. Finally, a “boiling crisis” is when the normally bubbly mode of coolant boiling, called sub-cooled nucleate boiling, transitions to film boiling, insulating the fuel with a layer of steam and worsening heat transfer.</p> <p>All four issues can and have caused failure of fuel cladding, leading to radioactive releases into the coolant and costing reactor operators over $1 million per day of downtime to fix the problem. The goal of the MIT project is to address all four issues at once by developing a viable solution, consisting of engineered cladding surface coatings and micro/nano geometric modifications to reduce or eliminate all four problems, within three years. The team will design a set of coatings and surface modifications for Zircaloy-based fuel cladding currently in use. The combination will simultaneously:</p> <ul> <li>minimize or prevent buildup of unidentified deposits and hydrogen pickup, which in turn will increase the lifetime, stability, and power density of the fuel;</li> <li>improve hardness to prevent grid-to-rod fretting, which occurs when the spacer grid (a metal piece which separates the fuel rods) and the rods themselves vibrate and wear holes into the metal; and</li> <li>maximize critical heat flux (critical heat flux describes the thermal limit of a phenomenon where a phase change occurs during heating) to improve hear transfer.</li> </ul> <p>This targeted three-year development time from lab-scale tests to commercial reactor implementation is unprecedented. The normal process for most new reactor components is between 10 and 15 years.</p> <p>The MIT team will work with fuel vendor Westinghouse Electric Company and the nation’s largest nuclear operator Exelon Generation to test and identify the best coating for commercialization and use in a commercial U.S. reactor by 2019. The project brings together MIT researchers from the departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and the MIT Nuclear Reactor Lab.</p> <p>The funding will support research in the&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems</a>, one of the MIT Energy Initiative’s eight&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">Low-Carbon Energy Centers</a>, which Exelon&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">joined as a member in 2016</a>&nbsp;to advance key enabling technologies for addressing climate change.</p> Michael Short, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MITPhoto: Susan YoungResearch, Funding, Grants, Faculty, Energy, Nuclear Reactor Lab, Nuclear power and reactors, Nuclear science and engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, DMSE, Mechanical engineering, MIT Energy Initiative Sara Hauptman: Learning to operate a nuclear reactor MIT student is part of an elite crew of licensed nuclear reactor operators. Fri, 31 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Leda Zimmerman | Nuclear Reactor Lab <p>Before sophomore Sara Hauptman set foot in a nuclear science and engineering (NSE) class, she was learning to operate MIT’s nuclear reactor. “When I heard my first lectures describing reactor processes, I knew exactly what they were talking about because I’d already seen them firsthand,” says Sara Hauptman, who is pursuing an NSE major. She began training fall of freshman year, and received her operator’s license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last November.&nbsp;</p> <p>Hauptman is part of an elite crew — and one of a few undergraduates — to make it through an intensive year-long operator training regimen at MIT's Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL), which serves as a major national facility to support research&nbsp; on advanced nuclear reactors. Sharing shifts with colleagues including MIT students and former U.S. Navy servicemen with nuclear reactor experience, Hauptman spends up to 24 hours per week monitoring the light-water cooled university reactor, which runs around the clock all year long, except for planned maintenance periods.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The control room looks like something out of a sci-fi movie from the 1970s, which is when most of this stuff was built,” says Hauptman. “It is windowless, with bright fluorescent lights overhead, and there are screens and rows of blinking lights.”</p> <p>What may strike some as claustrophobic suits Hauptman just fine. “You have to sit tight for four hours, and you don’t have a sense of time passing, which I got used to in training,” she says, “But I hang out in my dorm and watch Netflix for hours without moving, so I’m pretty proficient at sitting tight.”</p> <p>For Hauptman, this assignment represents both an accomplishment and a surprising turn in her life. “Even now I sometimes can’t believe I work there,” she says. A native of Utah, Hauptman excelled in math and the sciences in high school, and was intent on pursuing chemical engineering in college. In search of a higher education curriculum that could provide both chemistry and Mandarin, her chosen minor, she selected MIT as her one out-of-state option. She was accepted through early action.</p> <p>After arriving on campus, a fortuitous episode nudged Hauptman off her planned academic path. She found herself in an NSE freshmen pre-orientation program instead of her first-choice chemical engineering program.</p> <p>“I knew nothing about the field coming in, but professors explained the different kinds of research possible in nuclear engineering, how it’s applied to medicine, how computational science is involved,” she says. “The presentation that stuck the most was on nuclear security and ways of working on nonproliferation, and I thought that sounded like something I’d like to do.”</p> <p>But what made the greatest impression was a tour of the MIT reactor. “They mentioned the training program, and I thought, ‘What a crazy opportunity; who gets a chance like this?’” recalls Hauptman. “I decided to go for it.”</p> <p>The biggest draw for her was a campus job offering hands-on experience. “I knew the training would be hard, but it would be extremely relevant to what I’d learn in classes, especially physics,” she says. “Once I obtained my license, there would be time to work on homework while sitting in the control room.”</p> <p>In November of freshman year, while pursuing demanding first-year course requirements, Hauptman leapt into an operator training program more challenging than she had imagined: “I knew I’d have to understand radiation sources and dangers, but what surprised me was all the mechanical stuff you have to know, the ventilation, cooling, shielding systems and how they interact,” she says.</p> <p>She digested a small book’s worth of mechanical and instrumentation procedures, the start-up and shutdown check list, and the process for achieving and sustaining reactor equilibrium. During a planned refueling shutdown, Hauptman was able to peer into the core. “I’d seen pictures of Cherenkov radiation — beta particles in water moving faster than the speed of light — but I thought it couldn’t possibly look like that in reality,” she says. “When I saw the blue glow with my own eyes, it was probably the best day I ever had while at work.”</p> <p>Since receiving her license, she’s had only one tense moment: Her first time alone in the control room, she says, “a relatively routine alarm went off and I jumped out of my seat.”</p> <p>She also faced a major challenge: calibrating a new control rod for the reactor core. “It took almost four hours, and I had to keep the power level constant, monitoring the reactivity the whole time,” she says.</p> <p>Today, Hauptman feels privileged to be NRC-licensed and qualified to assist with experiments, including a project developing a design for a new generation of reactors cooled by molten salt, and another involving irradiating ingots of silicon to improve the material’s efficiency as a semiconductor. She is also very enthusiastic about what she does. “I talk about work more than I should, and I like to give my friends tours,” she says.</p> <p>Just launching into NSE coursework, Hauptman is contemplating an academic focus on nuclear security. “That could mean coming up with new technology to detect nuclear material on cargo ships or in airports,” she says. “I also find issues around nonproliferation really interesting and relevant — such as verifying that the other side has actually disassembled its warheads.”</p> <p>Life after graduation remains distant, but she has pinpointed one immediate goal: “I will be staying this summer to train for my supervisor’s license,” she says.</p> Sara Hauptman stands in the control room of MIT's Nuclear Reactor Lab. Photo: Susan YoungProfile, Students, Undergraduate, Nuclear science and engineering, Nuclear security and policy, Nuclear Reactor Lab, Energy, School of Engineering, Nuclear power and reactors