Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Construction Begun on OSU Nuclear Energy Facility

Story first appeared on Fox 12 News -

Oregon State University students will get to study a nuclear energy concept at a new on-campus facility.

Construction began today on the $4.8 million facility meant to test a new nuclear energy technology that could be safer, more efficient and produce less waste than existing approaches.

Researchers say it is a viable and versatile energy concept for the future.

This nuclear reactor the new approach is a "super-hot" type of nuclear reactor cooled by helium gas, not water, and can reach 2000 degrees. That's about three times hotter than existing reactors.

Researchers say it could produce electricity, hydrogen to power automobiles, steam to heat a building complex, or provide a cheaper way to desalinate seawater.

Like any existing nuclear reactor, the high-temperature nuclear reactors could produce electricity about 35-50 percent more efficiently than existing approaches. But they also create about half as much radioactive waste, by the nature of their design cannot melt down, and like all nuclear technologies produce no greenhouse gas emissions.

"If they can make the cars, we could use this technology to make the hydrogen," said Brian Woods, an associate professor of nuclear engineering and director of this project. "One of the biggest attractions of the high-temperature reactors is their versatility. They could be used in so many ways.

"Like any new technology, it will take some time for this to gain acceptance," Woods said. "But by the middle of this century I could easily see high-temperature nuclear reactors becoming a major player in energy production around the world."

The test facility now being built at OSU, like some of its previous counterparts in passive safety and small modular reactors, will be used to test high-temperature reactors for safety and simulate multiple types of accidents. There will be no use of nuclear fuel, with the high temperatures produced by electrical heaters.

"Something that works at a very high temperature might sound more risky, but in fact this type of nuclear reactor technology would be the safest of all," Woods said. "Everything in the system is designed to withstand extremely high temperatures, and in the event of any system failure, it would simply shut off and slowly cool down."

The test facility being constructed in the OSU Radiation Center is about six feet wide and 18 feet tall, and will simulate the reactor vessel. In this technology, helium gas is used as the coolant to transfer heat through a steam generator. The system uses special stainless steel and other alloys to handle the extreme heat, and was built by Harris Thermal, Inc., in Newberg, OR.

Field tests are scheduled to begin in April and continue until summer 2014.

The work is being supported by grants from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.