University of Tennessee receives DOE funds to improve nuclear safety

October 11, 2012

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will take part in two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) projects totaling more than $9 million which involve a team of institutions to improve upon nuclear energy safety and efficiency.

The projects draw upon lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant accident.

The two awards are part of the DOE's 2012 Nuclear Energy University Programs (NEUP) Integrated Research Programs (IRP).

A proposal by Kurt Sickafus, head of the Department of Material Science and Engineering, was awarded $3.5 million to improve the nuclear fuel cladding in light water reactors. Cladding refers to the metallic tube that protects the fuel in a nuclear reactor from the surrounding coolant such as water.

"Currently, the alloys in the cladding when at high temperatures can oxidize, releasing hydrogen gas which can cause an explosion similar to the one we saw in Japan," Sickafus said.

The UT-based team aims to protect the zirconium alloy cladding by depositing thin layers of durable ceramic coatings on top of it. This design promises to prohibit the oxidation of nuclear fuel cladding, which in turn will minimize the possibility of nuclear reactor accidents.

Collaborating institutions are Pennsylvania State University; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Michigan; Westinghouse Electric Company; Los Alamos National Laboratory; University of Manchester; University of Oxford; University of Sheffield; and University of Huddersfield.

The university will also collaborate with project lead Georgia Tech and 10 other institutions on a $5.9 million NEUP IRP award project to develop a novel concept of a high-power light water reactor with inherent safety features that will advance its safety level beyond that of advanced passive systems. The UT group is led by Wesley Hines, head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering, and Belle Upadhyaya, nuclear engineering professor. The novel design incorporates lessons learned from events induced by the natural disaster in Fukushima by eliminating potential accident initiators.

"Some of the features include the reactor being fully passive, meaning that an operator action or electronic feedback will not be necessary to shut down the reactor safely in the event of an emergency," said Hines. "Also, the entire nuclear reactor area will be seismically isolated so that it is protected against any earthquakes of magnitude seen in history."
The NEUP programs support multifaceted projects to develop breakthroughs for the U.S. nuclear energy industry. Universities lead the three-year projects, working in collaboration with the nuclear industry, national laboratories and international partners.

For more information on the specific awards, visit

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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