CASL Wraps up 10 Years of Solving Nuclear Problems — and Hands Toolbox to Industry

By Kristi L Bumpus

August 17, 2020

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). This story explores how CASL, DOE’s first Energy Innovation Hub, rapidly developed high performance computing tools that changed the ways an industry thinks about modeling and simulation.

Ten years ago, the Department of Energy put out a call for innovators to change the world of nuclear energy.

What DOE hoped to accomplish with the then-new Energy Innovation Hubs concept was “translational research” — research and development on an accelerated timeline that could solve the problems facing the nuclear industry, not only extending the life of the current reactor fleet, but also paving the way for more efficient next-generation reactors.

Those solutions would then go straight to industry as quickly as possible. DOE was willing to put $125 million toward a “hub” for at least five years to see that happen.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory-based Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors — a national collaboration of top scientists and engineers from government, academia and industry who had the privilege of making up DOE’s first Energy Innovation Hub — showed enough success that DOE renewed its funding for a second five-year period.

The consortium wrapped in June, having solved some of the biggest nuclear reactor challenges, and is handing industry a comprehensive software suite with the tools and support to use it immediately and on an ongoing basis.

“We’ve come through on the bet,” said former CASL director Doug Kothe.

Involving industry

Industry buy-in was a critical element of the hub’s success, said original CASL member John Turner. The Tennessee Valley Authority, Westinghouse and the Electric Power Research Institute were partners from the start.

“That was a key part of the project, having industry involved early on, but we didn’t have to convince them how valuable this was,” Turner said. “They were coming to the table saying, ‘We need help here.’ Industry was recognizing the gaps themselves, and they respected our expertise and were motivated to collaborate with us.”

Other partners included Idaho, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Michigan and North Carolina State University.

“It was an ambitious undertaking,” said Dave Kropaczek, a chief scientist with CASL who became its director in 2018 and was an early member of the industry council. “It had a huge scope. I was skeptical but curious.”

With hundreds of scientists and engineers at the top of their field working together, the consortium set a goal to develop broad capabilities to:

  • Accurately predict and reduce instances of undesirable boiling conditions, thereby increasing fuel performance and core power. An example was departure from nucleate boiling, the point at which a steam blanket forms on the fuel rod surface, insulating it and reducing heat transfer rapidly.
  • Predict and manage “crud,” which are deposits that form on fuel rods that can shorten their efficiency and lifespan, increasing the cost of power.
  • Predict fuel pellet and cladding integrity during normal operation and postulated accident scenarios, giving power plant operators greater flexibility in when and how much power is produced.
  • Predict how neutrons interact with large reactor components to provide a guide for which materials are likely to degrade on what timeline, as well as to help reactor owners decide when to replace parts for improved performance.
VERA’s tools allow a virtual window inside the reactor core, down to a molecular level. Image courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

How would they do that? By developing an exceedingly accurate virtual reactor.

‘The modern era of simulation’

The field of modeling and simulation wasn’t new to the industry; it had been part of nuclear engineering for decades.

The challenge, though, was bridging the gap between its current capabilities and its possibilities, Turner said.

“At the time, industry had become more followers than leaders in simulation; they were used to lower-fidelity, lower-confidence simulations,” Kothe said. “We opened their eyes to the possibilities and brought them into the modern era of simulation. We demystified the simulation technology. It wasn’t a black box; they were part of the development, and they could roll up their sleeves and go in there and see that it’s not a bunch of smoke and mirrors. They saw that this tool was for everyone and that the staffers involved were talented and committed and listened to them.”

The stakes were high. Nuclear produces roughly 20 percent of the total U.S. power supply but more than half its carbon-free electricity. While the country’s demand for power is expected to increase by at least 25 percent by 2030, the average age of the U.S. nuclear fleet is close to 40. As of last year, 17 reactors at 16 sites were in various stages of decommissioning, yet only one new reactor has gone online in the U.S. this century. Extending the life and efficiency of these older, existing reactors meant buying time and power until the next generation of reactors is developed and put into service.

Gil Weigand, then CASL’s startup manager, “pushed us very hard to release a Version 1 software package after only one year,” Turner said. “If we looked back, we’d probably be pretty underwhelmed with what that was. But it was still a big achievement to rise to Gil’s challenge and release a software package after only a year.”

Four years after that first release when CASL’s Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications, or VERA, accurately simulated the 2016 startup of TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 2 — the only reactor to go online in the U.S. in the 21st century — it became obvious that the project would have a permanent impact on the industry.

“Early in CASL, everyone involved established a strong vision for the program with aggressive challenge problems that drove development,” said Jess Gehin, who was initially a focus area leader and became CASL’s second director. “Hard decisions were made on research directions that resulted in delivery of game-changing capabilities that showed that modern modeling and simulation capabilities can deliver significant predictive and application improvements over the engineering tools in use at the time.”

To read the full article, visit https://www.ornl.gov/news/casl-wraps-10-years-solving-nuclear-problems-and-hands-toolbox-industry

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