Technology promises ‘faster, more economical path to nuclear energy’
ORNL scientists are developing methods to confirm the consistency and reliability of its printed components. Photo courtesy Brittany Cramer/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US DOE. Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee are refining their design of a 3D-printed nuclear reactor core, scaling up the manufacturing process necessary to build it, and developing methods to confirm the consistency and reliability of its printed components.

The Transformational Challenge Reactor (TCR) demonstration programme’s approach to nuclear energy uses advances made at ORNL in manufacturing, materials, nuclear science, nuclear engineering, high-performance computing, data analytics and related fields.

ORNL said in a statement it aims to turn on the first-of-its-kind reactor by 2023. The programme has maintained its aggressive timeline during the Covid-19 pandemic, using remote work to continue design and analysis efforts.

“The nuclear industry is still constrained in thinking about the way we design, build and deploy nuclear energy technology,” ORNL director Thomas Zacharia said. “The DOE launched this programme to seek a new approach to rapidly and economically develop transformational energy solutions that deliver reliable, clean energy.”

Reactor development and deployment have traditionally relied on materials, fuels and technology pioneered in the 1950s and 1960s. High costs and decades-long construction times have limited the US to building only one new nuclear power plant in the last 20 years.

ORNL said the TCR will introduce new, advanced materials and use integrated sensors and controls, providing “a highly optimised, efficient system” that reduces costs and has the potential to shape a new path in reactor design, manufacturing, licensing and operation.

The TCR programme has completed several foundational experiments including selection of a core design, and a three-month “sprint” that demonstrated the agility of the additive manufacturing technology to quickly produce a prototype reactor core.

Date: Wednesday, 13 May 2020
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