National Research Project Focuses On Nuclear Reactors

April 29, 1998

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue University researchers are leading a national effort to ensure the safety and efficiency of the next generation of nuclear power plants.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has established the Institute of Thermal-Hydraulics at Purdue's School of Nuclear Engineering. With a five-year, $10 million task order contract from the commission, a team of researchers from Purdue and several other universities will provide technical expertise and perform thermal-hydraulics and reactor safety research for the commission. The initial phase of this contract runs through 2002.

The institute will focus on developing base technology for new, sophisticated computer programs to accurately simulate the processes that would take place in a new, advanced type nuclear reactor. The simulations will model the behavior of the reactor under all conceivable conditions of operation, including accidents. One of the goals of the research is to produce a new graphical user interface for the computer programs, which will allow designers, regulators and other researchers to more easily use the simulations.

Before allowing construction of a new type of reactor in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that its technology, design, operation, safety systems and performance be thoroughly investigated.

"The team that has been assembled to carry out this research is unarguably the most talented group of experts in this field in the world," says Mamoru Ishii, director of the institute and a professor of nuclear engineering at Purdue. "Our faculty at Purdue, who are internationally recognized for their expertise in thermal-hydraulics, are well prepared not only to lead the team effort but to make contributions to the research efforts as well."

The study of thermal-hydraulics involves investigating how fluids transfer heat in a complex system, such as a nuclear power plant. In a nuclear power plant, as in a coal-burning plant, high-pressure steam turns the blades of a turbine, powering a generator that creates electricity. In a nuclear reactor, the heat needed to boil the water to produce the steam is made by splitting certain atoms of uranium in a process called fission.

In a reactor, water is not only heated to produce steam, it also is used to cool the reactor. In addition, water and steam often flow through the reactor system simultaneously, a process called multiphase flow. Ishii said all of these elements and complex interactions in the advanced reactor will be thoroughly studied and then brought together in the computer simulations.

In addition to Purdue, the institute also includes researchers from Penn State University, the University of California, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin, the University of Colorado and SCIENTECH Inc., a small business with international expertise in thermal-hydraulics research.

Purdue University

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