Sandia LabNews

Renewed interest in nuclear energy in US could mean new opportunities for Sandia

For a while there, the nuclear power industry in the US called to mind Yogi Berra’s assessment of the ballplayer who never quite lived up to his early promise: "His future’s all behind him."

Now, though it will certainly be a close-run thing, it appears possible — just possible — that nuclear power may be poised for a renaissance in the US. After decades in the PC wilderness, nuclear power is suddenly being mentioned in polite company.

The shoals of Three Mile Island

While the US nuclear power industry foundered on the shoals of Three Mile Island (no new plants have come on line since then, i.e., the 1980s), nuclear power still provides about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. There are more than 100 commercial reactors operating, and thanks to new and improved technologies, they’re churning out megawatts at greater-than-ever efficiencies. (Significantly, as Sandia Div. 6000 VP Bob Eagan notes, the effects of the Three Mile Island incident have been misperceived by the public. "Three Mile Island is cited as a big issue, but the fact is not one individual outside of the plant was harmed– even statistically — and I’m not sure anybody inside the plant was hurt, either. And since then, there have been no occurrences of any magnitude." Chernobyl doesn’t count because it was built and operated according to standards far, far less stringent than those that apply to Western reactors.)

If nuclear energy is again turning heads, it is not just its new efficiencies that are generating those admiring glances. As Sandia Executive VP Joan Woodard puts it, "Folks have to perceive a driving need for change." That driver, she says, is the current energy crisis, especially the looming possibility of hundreds of hours of rolling blackouts in California. To paraphrase a familiar dictum: nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect that your "Ben and Jerry’s"-stocked freezer will be off-line for the next 10 hours.

"The nation really does face some very acute problems with energy," Joan says, "and Sandia has some very important contributions to make to address them."

While the energy crisis may be the proximate cause of the latest attention being paid, Joan herself deserves no small credit for keeping the issue viable in recent years. In a letter to Sen. Pete Domenici in 1997, she spelled out many of the arguments why the nation should re-visit the nuclear debate. Subsequently, the New Mexico senator has become a highly visible and vocal advocate for reviving serious national debate about nuclear power. His speech at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in October 1997 is seen by many as the being pivotal in jump-starting the national dialogue on nuclear power.

Sandia has stayed involved

Through all the years that nuclear power has been on the wane, Sandia has continued to maintain substantial capabilities in nuclear power-related issues. Indeed, as a multiprogram, systems-savvy lab with fundamental responsibilities in assuring the safety and security of the nation’s most sensitive nuclear assets, Sandia is uniquely poised to consider nuclear power as an integrated system. That’s exactly what Sandia Senior VPs Roger Hagengruber (5000) and Tom Hunter (9000), and VP Bob Eagan (6000) are advocating.

These three, with heavy-lifting support from Joan and Labs President C. Paul Robinson, talk about what they call the "Global Nuclear Future," which is a way of thinking about how nuclear energy, bolstered by appropriate public policy decisions, can serve the nation’s requirements for domestic energy security, global national security, nonproliferation, and lock-box-solid nuclear materials management. The key, as Sandia nuclear power guru Tom Sanders (6411) explains, is a transparent, that is, totally-open-for-all-to-see, nuclear fuel cycle. (A June 15 Lab News article, "The Global Nuclear Future: A vision for the new nuclear culture," will look at the Global Nuclear Future vision in detail.)

Key research for NRC

The Labs is a key research arm for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), providing vital expertise to that body as it pursues its regulatory mission. Sandia’s expertise in risk technology will aid the NRC as it develops a new risk-informed regulatory framework. The Labs’ long experience in studying and understanding severe accident phenomena has helped NRC develop appropriate regulations.

Also, with its involvement with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and the proposed Yucca Mountain waste facility in Nevada, Sandia is arguably the world’s leader in repository science.

Other Labs areas of expertise (mostly developed as part of the Labs’ weapons-related mission) that are brought to bear on nuclear power issues include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Global nuclear materials management: The safe and secure management of nuclear materials through all phases, from processing to transportation to storage.
  • Sensors: : If the Global Nuclear Future vision is to be viable, transparency is essential. And that means sensors that keep the windows open and let the fresh air in at all times. Sandia’s sensor technologies, from the satellite-based Multispectral Thermal Imager to the latest MEMS technologies, developed for national security applications from weapons to nonproliferation, will be key in the new transparent global nuclear culture.
  • Human factors: : Why and how people make mistakes — and how to design systems that minimize the potential for human error. It’s a long-standing concern in many industries. Sandia is a leader here, and its work has applicability to nuclear reactor design and operation.
  • Computer modeling: : Leveraging Sandia’s world-leading computer modeling capabilities, Labs researchers have modeled the entire nuclear energy infrastructure in sophisticated computer code. An invaluable planning and policy-making tool, it is based on the same technology being used in science-based stockpile stewardship.
  • Rocket pull-down tests and container drop tests: : A capability originally developed for testing weapon components in extreme conditions, the pull-down tests and drop tests are being used to develop robust containers for transporting plutonium and other sensitive materials.
  • Reactor design: : Sandians are working with industry and universities to develop less-expensive, more reliable, easier-to-license reactor designs that can compete dollar-for dollar with natural gas power systems. Sandia researchers also are among world leaders in space reactor design. Their knowledge has been sought after by NASA, which is beginning to plan extended manned planetary missions (widely thought to be impossible without a reliable nuclear power component).
  • Nuclear criticality: : Sandia’s nuclear criticality safety program, designed to help Sandia researchers conduct their experiments safely, has important relevance to the safe production, storage, transportation, and disposition of nuclear fuels.
  • Z: Finally, there is the philosopher’s stone of energy sources: fusion. Sandia’s work with its renowned Z machine, reaching record temperature and X-ray outputs, may be blazing the trail toward a new energy source that is clean, and virtually limitless.

Removing barriers to nuke power

While Sandia has had an ongoing role in nuclear power-related research for many years, the renewed interest in nuclear energy could open doors to new R&D opportunities. Just how extensive those opportunities may be is still a bit unclear, Joan says. Clearly, the Labs will continue to perform key research for the NRC and will seek research opportunities in programs funded under DOE’s Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI), where "we’ve [already] been a pretty prominent player."

NERI was launched by DOE in response to a 1997 presidential science panel recommendation that it fund research to help remove barriers to the re-invigoration of nuclear power. The barriers posited by NERI included waste, proliferation, safety, and economics. Sandia has direct expertise in addressing the waste, proliferation, and safety issues, Joan notes, and is contributing to a solution to the economic concern through its work on nuclear plant design optimization. In short, the opportunities are there, and they seem particularly suited to Sandia’s capabilities.

Sandia’s unique perspective

As the nation comes to grips with the energy challenges of the 21st century, Joan says, political and public support for nuclear power will be vital. She lauds New Mexico’s senators, Domenici and Bingaman, for their leadership. (Bingaman last month introduced the University Nuclear Science and Engineering Act, which encourages students to pursue advanced nuclear studies. Domenici in March introduced the Nuclear Energy Electricity Assurance Act of 2001, which fosters greater use of nuclear energy while supporting advanced research into technologies to minimize wastes.)

Joan notes that Sandia, perhaps uniquely among all the national laboratories, has been involved in the entire spectrum of energy-related work. Sandia researchers over the years have been immersed not just in nuclear energy issues, but also in fossil fuel research, wind power, photovoltaics, solar-thermal, alternative fuels, electric cars, and even geothermal research. Its critical infrastructure work has led it into areas of power grid reliability, pipeline integrity, and hydropower dam safety.

"This unique perspective is really fascinating to me," Joan says. "We see all of the promises; we see all of the challenges, all of the pitfalls. No one of these technologies is the answer to all of our energy problems, but nuclear certainly has an important part to play."