FEATURE: Future Power Technology – Revamping nuclear reactor technology with 3D printing and AI

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Transformational Challenge Reactor Program hopes to bring nuclear power into the 21st century by deploying 3D printing and AI to design and produce reactor core technology. We find out more.

Nuclear power is in the midst of a crisis. In 20 years, only one nuclear plant has been built in the US and in Western Europe. Countries are either phasing out the technology altogether or commissioned projects are experiencing rising costs and endless days. Furthermore, the shift away from large-scale base-power to intermittent renewables is raising questions about nuclear powers’ relevance in the future.

“We’ve lost the will or don’t know how to design, build, and deploy nuclear systems as we did previously in the 50s, 60s, and 70s – we haven’t built a non-water-cooled advanced reactor in about 40 years,” says Kurt Terrani, a senior staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

An ongoing research project at the laboratory, called the Transformational Challenge Reactor Program, of which Terrani is a technical director, is aimed at changing this depressing fact. It is working with material, computational, and manufacturing sciences, as well as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and big data to advance reactor core design.

“We want to exploit these technological advances and the best new materials to show we can deliver better, safer systems that can be deployed more quickly,” says Terrani.

He goes further, explaining the need for innovation in the nuclear industry:“I’m very suspicious of nuclear engineers because they haven’t delivered anything new in the last 40 years, but if you look at natural gas technology, these guys have been innovating.

“If you’re a utility chief financial officer, it’s kind of insane to go ahead and take a bet on nuclear, whereas gas has a very low capital cost. We need more efficient, better systems. Our dream is to break the abstinence from building advanced reactors in this country [the US].”

Addressing the cost problem

Perhaps most concerning is how the costs for nuclear have skyrocketed. The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in the UK, for example, is expected to cost an eye-watering £22bn.

To address the cost problem, researchers at Oak Ridge, the largest science and energy national laboratory in the Department of Energy system , are refining their design of a 3D printed gas pipe to reactor core that can use scaled up additive manufacturing for construction. The prototype is a ‘micro’ three megawatts reactor.


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