DOE renews ORNL-led virtual reactor project; five-year funding set at $121.5M

caslpicOver the past five years, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its partners have developed and tested advanced computing techniques for simulating the internal operations of a nuclear reactor, in essence creating a virtual reactor.

The work to date has reportedly been a success, and the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed plans to renew funding — $121.5 million spread over the next five years — and expand the work of the ORNL-based Consortium for the Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, known as CASL.The funding extension is subject to Congressional approval annually.

“We’re not even a month into the new year and already there’s two pieces of good news,” ORNL Director Thom Mason said Thursday in a telephone interview.

Mason was making reference to President Obama’s announcement, during a visit to Knoxville earlier this month, of another big project — the Manufacturing Innovation institute for Advanced Composites — in which ORNL will play a central role.

Both CASL and the manufacturing institute are part of the Department of Energy’s Innovation Hubs program that’s designed to bring together researchers from many different backgrounds and institutions to tackle big challenges in an accelerated time frame.

In addition to ORNL, other founding members of the reactor simulation group are TVA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Westinghouse, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sandia National Laboratories, Electric Power Research Institute, North Carolina State University and Idaho National Laboratory. Other institutions are expected to join the consortium for the second phase, when researchers will expand the computing efforts to simulate operations of other types of nuclear reactors.

Doug Kothe, director of CASL, said the biggest accomplishment in the first five years was developing the virtual reactor and then testing and improving it. Actual operating data from TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 1 reactor was used to validate the accuracy of the simulation software known as VERA (Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications).

“That technology is really our seminal product,” Kothe said. “It’s really evolved from a vision to a living, breathing piece of software that’s being exercised daily.”

The virtual reactor software has been run on ORNL’s Titan supercomputer, a Cray system that is the nation’s most powerful science machine — capable of more than 20 million billion calculations per second. But VERA has also been adapted for use in other computers as well, and it’s anticipated by the time the second phase of the project has been completed five years from now that most nuclear utilities will have Titan-like computing capabilities to help maximize the performance of their reactors.

The research consortium is supporting the nuclear industry’s goals to achieve higher power ratings with their reactors and other efficiencies, as well as developing simulation tools that can be applied to the design of next-generation power reactors.

In announcing the extension of funding for the ORNL-based Innovation Hub, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — who served on the CASL board of directors when he was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — said in a statement, “As President Obama made clear during his State of the Union address, reducing carbon pollution and protecting the climate has to be a top priority. CASL’s work to help further our understanding of nuclear reactors, improving safety while also making them more efficient, will help the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.