US DOE announced nuclear research funding

2 January 2019

The US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) announced on 20 December that it is collaborating with industry on six new projects focused on advancing commercial nuclear energy technologies that offer potential improvements to current reactors and move new reactor designs closer to deployment.

DOE support provides companies access to ORNL’s nuclear experts and facilities. The total funding for projects involving ORNL is about $9.5 million, and additional industry cost-sharing for two projects increases the total value to approximately $12 million.

Advancing simulation

Two of the projects are supported through a DOE Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) programme, US Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Development, one involving Exelon Generation and the other Analysis and Measurement Services Corporation and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).   

ORNL and Exelon will pursue improved modelling and simulation techniques of boiling water reactors (BWRs), which could enhance current reactor operations and advanced reactor development. Leveraging the ORNL-based Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, the partnership will take modelling tools that mainly simulate pressurised water reactors and expand them for use in simulating BWRs. Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and multiple universities will also support this project. This effort is expected to deliver multiple benefits, said ORNL.

“The continued development of advanced modelling and simulation software under this project will play a vital role not only for improved reactivity and thermal margin predictions but also for continued advancement of new fuel products and designs, such as accident tolerant fuel and its deployment to current operating boiling water reactors,” said Mehdi Asgari, deputy director of the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program Technical Integration Office and ORNL’s primary investigator for the project with Exelon.

ORNL, working with Analysis and Measurement Services Corporation and PNNL will develop criteria testing for age-related deterioration of cables and cable insulation. ORNL will provide cable characterisation expertise and also modify current facilities to accommodate more robust testing.

GAINing improvement

DOE-NE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear is funding four projects involving ORNL. Exelon will partner with ORNL to perform a feasibility study for the enrichment of gadolinium-157 using the plasma separation process. Using an enriched form of gadolinium in the fuel designs of current reactors could potentially reduce fuel costs in the USA by more than $100 million a year. ORNL, as a leader in plasma and fusion nuclear science, will help Exelon in determining if modern technology will make the process economically feasible.

In the second project, ORNL will work with Eastman and INL on the design and analysis of an integrated nuclear hybrid energy system. ORNL’s  expertise in advanced reactor technology makes INL an ideal partner to analyse the operational performance, cost and reliability of a nuclear power–based system as an energy source in Eastman’s long-term energy strategy, ORNL said.

NexDefense Inc will partner with ORNL in the third project in analysing the company’s cybersecurity software for use in nuclear reactors. The project will detail benefits of the software and also analyse potential cyber vulnerabilities in nuclear reactor operating systems.

Finally, Westinghouse Electric Company and ORNL will develop and evaluate alumina-forming austenitic stainless steels for lead-cooled fast reactor applications. In optimising such a material, the project team seeks to overcome the key hurdle of high temperature lead compatibility. ORNL is experienced in investigating liquid metal compatibility and in developing alumina-forming alloys for extreme environments.

The six projects are part of the third round of funding provided through an ongoing DOE funding opportunity. In total, DOE provided nearly $100 million in 2018 to support private–public partnerships developing innovative nuclear technologies.

Fusion funding

In a separate initiative, DOE's Office of Science announced $14 million of funding over three years for new research on fusion energy based on data from the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, a DOE tokamak operated by General Atomics in San Diego. Universities, non-profits and private sector companies are invited to submit applications for the funding, which will be awarded competitively on the basis of peer review. The funding is expected to be in the form of three-year grants of between $50,000 and $1..5 million a year, beginning in the current fiscal year.

General Atomics earlier in 2018 launched a year-long series of enhancements at DIII-D to enable the facility, which is the largest US magnetic fusion experiment, to embark on new studies of the physics of future fusion reactors. Enhancements include adding increased and redirected particle beams and radio frequency systems to drive current and sustain the plasma in a so-called steady state. The research will contribute to the development of ITER, the major international fusion experiment currently under construction in France, DOE Office of Science said.


DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programme also announced its latest funding opportunity designed to support early stage, transformative energy technologies. The first round calls for innovative technologies supporting next generation nuclear energy, as well as technologies for geothermal exploration, and ultra-durable, lower-energy concrete for infrastructure. ARPA-E will award up to $18 million to project teams spread across standard and small business solicitations.

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