WPI Researchers to Develop Designs and Propose Licensing Strategies for Next-Generation University Research Microreactors
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers David Medich and Derren Rosbach have been awarded $499,509 from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to design facilities that could be built on university campuses to house next-generation nuclear microreactors, an emerging technology that is being developed for nuclear research and power generation.
Medich, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and principal investigator (PI) on the three-year project, and Rosbach, co-PI and associate teaching professor in the Department of Integrative and Global Studies, will use computer simulations to determine the structure and shielding needed for safe operation of a microreactor. They will develop plans for facilities optimized to take advantage of the compact nuclear cores in microreactors for physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, and engineering research. They also will evaluate requirements needed to adapt microreactors for electrical power and hot water generation at universities. Finally, the researchers will propose a pathway for federal licensing of university microreactors.
“About 25 nuclear reactors currently operate on university campuses, where they are used to test materials, generate medical isotopes for research, and train workers,” Medich said. “Most of those reactors are based on 1950s designs that limit their usefulness. New microreactors represent an advance that could enhance academic research programs and even provide carbon-free electricity to campuses that are pursuing sustainability goals.”
Microreactors are being developed as factory-built nuclear reactors small enough to fit on a tractor-trailer truck bed. Fueled with uranium, they would split atoms in a process called fission.
Fission releases sub-atomic particles known as neutrons. Researchers can aim a beam of neutrons at materials to explore material structure and composition, which can be useful in fields such as biology, chemistry, medicine, geology, archeology, and engineering.
Fission also releases energy, which can be used to generate electricity. Microreactors are being developed to generate up to 20 megawatts of electricity—enough for a campus, a small community, or a military installation. The largest U.S. nuclear power plant, in contrast, has a generating capacity of about 1,400 megawatts of electricity.
Medich and Rosbach will use published information about a commercial microreactor that is under development to design facilities with radiological shielding and neutron beamlines. They will evaluate the facilities’ radiological safety and structural integrity when a microreactor is operating to generate about 1 megawatt, 3 megawatts, and 5 megawatts of electricity. The researchers also will ensure that any structure does not change a microreactor’s core reactivity.
The final step will be to propose a process that universities could follow to license a microreactor with the NRC for research purposes and, eventually, for power generation.
Medich has previously been awarded NRC funding to support WPI’s nuclear science and engineering programs. The idea for the new research originated in a WPI Great Problems Seminar, Power the World, that is taught by Medich and Rosbach and focuses on the social, economic, and environmental challenges of power generation.
“Microreactors are being developed to be safer and more efficient than existing nuclear reactors,” Rosbach said. “However, there are still questions and concerns about safety and radioactive waste. We will explore these challenges and weigh them against the potential of a research reactor to generate both knowledge and carbon neutral energy.”