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UW-Madison to play key role in nuclear energy's comeback

UW-Madison's nuclear reactor

The UW-Madison nuclear reactor (large image)

As the climate warms, energy supplies shrink and oil imports continue to rise, nuclear energy is suddenly set for a resurgence: Splitting atoms, which now provide 20 percent of American electricity, are being asked to play a bigger role in solving our never-ending energy woes. In the last two years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received applications for 30 new reactors. And in May, the University of Wisconsin-Madison snagged 10 of 71 funding awards from the U.S. Department of Energy.

That's the type of endorsement that you can literally take to the bank.

Michael L. Corradini

Michael L. Corradini (large image)

The nuclear resurgence is welcome news to Michael Corradini, who chairs the UW-Madison Department of Engineering Physics. Despite the expansion of solar and wind power, he says, “nuclear is the only large baseload source of energy that is not a fossil fuel, and the Obama administration has wisely decided to invest in nuclear along with other non-carbon sources.” Baseload sources run day and night; in contrast, wind and solar power both operate intermittently.

One source of increased demand for electricity is transportation, long the exclusive realm of petroleum. “If you really think we are going to move toward plug-in hybrid vehicles, the need for baseload electricity will rise,” Corradini says. The large battery in a plug-in hybrid, which is supposed to power several dozen miles of all-electric travel, will be charged from utility current.

Corradini, who has long shepherded UW-Madison's exploration into nuclear engineering, says the university has deep expertise in many specialties needed to design safe, efficient nuclear-electric plants, including safety, materials and computer simulations. UW-Madison is also one of the rare U.S. campuses that operates its own research reactor.

Corradini, who studies safety issues arising from the flow of hot water in the 100-plus “light water” reactors now generating electricity in the United States, predicts that reactors built during the next 20 years will share the same fundamental design.

Paul P.H. Wilson

Paul P.H. Wilson (large image)

Many UW-Madison researchers are working to engineer the next generation of reactors, which are expected to operate at higher temperatures and offer improvements in safety and cost, while reducing liabilities associated with nuclear waste and the diversion of spent fuel to nuclear weapons. “People are trying to reach these goals,” says Paul Wilson, an associate professor of engineering physics, “but many basic designs, and a wealth of details must be worked out before these plants can be designed and built.”

For example, future reactors may be able to “burn” the radioactive waste that otherwise would have to undergo expensive disposal, says Wilson, who specializes in computer modeling of the moment when uranium divides and releases energy. Future reactors will probably employ a fundamentally different geometry, Wilson says. “There is a big effort to do detailed three-dimensional modeling, so we can understand issues of safety and performance before we have to build anything. It's very expensive to build many prototypes. If we can do this in a computer and then build one prototype, that shortens the timeline and cuts the cost.”

Computer simulation will also test a self-regulating feature of next-generation reactors, which will, ideally, shut themselves down to prevent dangerous overheating. UW-Madison is also involved in developing materials for reactor components that can survive for many years under intense heat and extreme radiation. “We have a leading program to understand and develop these materials,” says Wilson. “Other industries—like jet-engine makers—have to develop new materials for extreme environments, but when you add radiation damage, that greatly complicates design and fabrication.”

UW-Madison has long had expertise in fusion—the process that assembles atoms and powers the sun, and that may eventually provide a boundless supply of energy—if scientists can learn to control a type of matter called plasma at temperatures of roughly 100 million degrees Fahrenheit. The fusion program, which includes experts from three departments, is “probably the strongest plasma physics group in the country, and perhaps in the world,” says Corradini. Madison fusion researchers have moved into major leadership positions at other institutions, Corradini says. “Our program has had a major impact.”

Even as the debates continue over opening a spent-fuel repository in Nevada, Corradini says, “The public is becoming more accepting of nuclear power, and part of that is due to the need for more electricity. Fossil fuels are not the long-term future, but it can't be just nuclear, it's got to be range of things.”

Although the recent federal grants are another sign that nuclear is coming in from the wilderness, Corradini sees business as usual at UW-Madison. “I think the university has recognized that this type of energy is really important, and therefore it is part of our strategic mission to support it. We have always had a history of hiring top-notch people. You get very good faculty members and let them do good science; that is the purpose of a university, to create and disseminate knowledge, and do it a way that helps the public good.”