Sandia-Kurchatov collaboration begins with small steps
Sandia researchers and their Russian counterparts are taking the first small steps under a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Labs and the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. The ultimate goal of these important first steps is to create a world that is more environmentally sustainable, economically prosperous, and politically stable.
For the researchers involved, the key to reaching this lofty pinnacle is a viable energy underpinning. “Energy is the key,” says Bob Eagan (6000), Sandia’s VP for Energy, Information, and Infrastructure Surety. “It is woven into the fabric of our global infrastructure.” To make a beginning with the Russians, the two labs must be able to help decision makers better understand their energy and environmental options and trade-offs, Bob says. A key piece of that infrastructure is a nuclear fuel cycle that minimizes waste and the likelihood of weapons proliferation at the same time.
The agreement came about following a summit meeting involving US President George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002. Experts from Sandia and Kurchatov produced two white papers following the summit outlining mutual goals for expanding the use of nuclear power.
Proposing similar ideas
With the MOU now in place, the next step will be to expand the partnership to include multilab groups in the US and Russia — an effort that is now also beginning. (See “Six-Lab Nuclear Energy Plan…” on page 1.) An official kickoff visit to Sandia by Evgeny P. Velikhov, President of the
Kurchatov Institute, earlier this year brought a number of MOU project leaders together in a video conference.
“The Kurchatov Institute has been proposing similar ideas and looking forward to developing technology that could address the burgeoning growth in electric power demand from the under-developed nations,” says Sandia President C. Paul Robinson. “Thus it appeared that joint collaborations would be an excellent idea and would also further the administration’s emphasis on regularizing US relationships with Russia — as allies rather than adversaries.”
A potential “storm cloud” on the horizon could impact some of the Sandia-Kurchatov work, warns Paul. Russia’s continuing plans to supply a reactor to Iran could put some of the nuclear energy aspects of the collaboration in jeopardy. The US view of Iran’s efforts to secure a nuclear reactor is that the nation’s primary goal is proliferation of weapons rather than power generation, Paul says. (Iran’s price for oil is currently less than $1 per barrel delivered, a fact that would argue the nation has little need for a nuclear power reactor at present.)
It is likely that economic modeling, fusion, and “back end” joint projects could continue even if direct nuclear energy collaborations do not, however. Here is a Lab News summary of some of the work currently under way:
Sandia Chief Economist Arnie Baker (6010) initially met several of his Kurchatov counterparts last year during a visit in Moscow. “We’ve exchanged initial concepts and held our first modeling video conference. We’re now in the process of setting up technical meetings back in Moscow to brainstorm alternative approaches and begin to flesh out a work program,” he says. Initially, Arnie expects the focus of model-building efforts to be on Russia, rather than the broader Commonwealth of Independent States. “There’s a lot going on there and they need tools to make better-informed strategic energy/economic/environmental decisions.”
An example is the question of what direction Russia should take in building new power plants. Coal? Natural gas? Nuclear? During his visit to Albuquerque, Velikhov told Sandia researchers that Russian agencies “need to have a real understanding of why nuclear power is so important.”
By extending Sandia-developed models to Russia and other former Soviet republics, it’s possible to demonstrate cost trade-offs of the different power plant options, Arnie says. “It’s very easy to run ‘what if’ scenarios that policy makers and industry executives readily grasp. And you can track the environmental emissions of the different types of plants.”
Arnie ran the Sandia Global Energy Futures Model for Velikhov during his visit, generating a great deal of discussion. “Kurchatov has greenhouse and energy data,” says Arnie. “They have knowledge of the power systems in Russia and detailed engineering models. Our knowledge base is in economic and engineering modeling, particularly high-level, strategic learning tools. Putting the two together would create something of real value for Russia and we could also use it to help other countries better see the value of nuclear power, relative to other energy and environmental options.”
Pulsed Power Past and Present
Kurchatov has been involved in inertial confinement fusion efforts for more than three decades, says Sandia Senior Scientist Craig Olson (1600), the Labs’ point for the fusion aspects of the agreement. “I first met my Kurchatov counterpart, Valentine Smirnoff, in the 1970s at the first BEAMS conference,” says Craig. Several pulsed power z-pinch accelerators (such as Saturn and Z at Sandia, and Angara 5 in Russia) have produced outstanding results, and both laboratories are interested in experiments with the long-term goal of repetitive pulsed z-pinches for inertial fusion energy (IFE). Sandia is also working toward a larger z-pinch accelerator for demonstration of high fusion yield, as is Russia, says Craig. “There is exceptional interest and expertise in both the US and Russia to develop a strong collaboration to promote the rapid development of z-pinch IFE.”
While much of the funding currently goes to magnetic fusion concepts, collaboration from Russian researchers could help to change the perceptions of funding groups in the future, Craig says. For now he is busy setting up video conferences with his counterparts in Moscow. In addition, the international BEAMS meetings offer another opportunity for collaboration. Smirnoff attended the 2002 meeting in Albuquerque and will host the 2004 session in St. Petersburg, Russia, says Craig.
Desalination in Nuclear Context
When Bob Eagan first discussed the agreement last year in Russia, he was pleasantly surprised by suggestion that desalination be considered a topic for collaboration. That’s because Sandia has been working on desalination issues in a number of approaches, explains Peter Davies, Director of Sandia’s Geoscience and Environment Center 6100.
“The Russians see this in the context that in addition to generating electricity, nuclear power is a source of energy for thermally driven desalination processes,” he says. Sandia’s work has involved a systems approach with other agencies that has resulted in a roadmap (Lab News, Feb. 21) defining a research and development path for desalination technologies through the year 2020. “The roadmap provides us a useful framework for engaging others,” says Peter. “Right now we’ve identified counterparts [in Russia] but have not yet defined what we can do together.”
Yucca Mountain 2?
Recycling of spent fuel in new, advanced reactors (referred to as Generation IV reactors) could eliminate the need for a second Yucca Mountain-type repository in this century, says John Kelly, manager of the Labs’ Advanced Nuclear Energy Programs group (6406.) “Right now we expect Yucca Mountain to reach maximum capacity around 2030, and by 2010 we need to decide if we are going to start a Yucca Mountain 2 project. We think that research and development on advanced fuel cycles can lead to viable options that would significantly delay the need for a second repository.”
Right now, other countries take spent fuel and extract the plutonium for reuse, John
says. “We want a fuel cycle that is more proliferation-resistant and produces less residual waste than is used in other countries.”
Researchers can do this by developing a cycle to keep more difficult-to-handle actinides bound with the plutonium, making it less attractive for potential bomb-makers. “The current process is proven, however, and many countries aren’t sure they want to spend the money to develop a different process and establish it as a new international standard. A new process could reduce waste destined for high-level repositories like Yucca Mountain by as much as 90 percent. It would require an integrated systems approach involving both advanced reactors and advanced separations technology,” John says.
“What we’d like to do with our Russian counterparts is begin an information exchange activity to discuss our efforts and their efforts and
critique each other. That might help us avoid going down some dead-end paths.” Such an information exchange and peer review could evolve as funding is developed, he adds.
Proliferation — Quantifying Risk
Researchers from Sandia’s Modeling and Analysis Dept. 6415 are also working to identify how different technologies in the fuel cycle impact the potential for the spread of weapons. Using a process called Risk Informed Proliferation Analysis (RIPA), which involves a detailed knowledge of the various processes and the risks associated with them, a Sandia team is calculating “proliferation scores” for the various activities.
If technologies have the impact of making weapon-grade nuclear materials more available — thus making the creation of new weapons more likely — the team will assign a lower score. If a technology or activity makes it less likely that additional nuclear weapons can be built, it will be judged more proliferation-resistant and assigned a higher score.
“The next step is to get a dynamic, real-time assessment of the proliferation risk,” says Gary Rochau, department manager and team leader. Because the Kurchatov Institute is working along the same lines, the area is ideal for collaboration and benchmarking activities, he says. Using a systems analysis approach and the RIPA expert information to help determine “where you should be looking,” a dynamic system would allow one country to look at another’s nuclear power generating systems in real time and assess if the system is being operated in an acceptable manner.
With certain protocols, such a system could easily replace the kind of “independent verification” teams the world watched recently working in Iraq for the International Atomic Energy Agency. The system could protect a power plant’s sensitive information but still provide processed data to indicate to others if the operations are within agreed upon limits, Gary explains.
Because of Russia’s desire to export nuclear power systems on a “build, buy, and operate” basis for other nations, such systems could allay fears of weapon proliferation by allowing continual monitoring and help encourage, clean, cheap energy supplies in developing nations.
(Editor’s note: Under the leadership of Dori Ellis, Director of International Security Center 5300, Sandia has a major role in the nonproliferation programs of the National Nuclear Security Administration, as described in earlier Lab News articles.)
Global hydrogen economy
Both Russia and the US have expressed interest in the concept of a hydrogen economy, with the separation of hydrogen accomplished in thermal chemical processes. Burning coal or natural gas could provide needed heat, but such burning produces carbon emissions. By using nuclear power to provide high temperatures or electrical energy needed for production, then hydrogen could be formed in a more environmentally friendly way.
“There are a lot of ways to make hydrogen for fuel,” says Paul Pickard, Manager of Advanced Nuclear Concepts Dept. 6424. “All of them are difficult.” Currently Sandia is working with researchers from General Atomics and the French government on a chemical approach that would make it easier to break hydrogen away from other compounds. The agreement with Kurchatov opens another avenue for exploration.
“There are a lot of materials, chemicals, and membrane technologies that could be useful in generating hydrogen,” says Paul. “All these things are under discussion now.” Also important will be the selection of specific reactor types for next-generation power plants, he says. Reactors that can “close” the fuel cycle, by minimizing waste, and couple to hydrogen production will be the goal.
Looking at the ‘back end’
But, warns Dennis Berry, Director of Environmental Security Technology Center 6800, “any new reactor designed to produce hydrogen or desalinate water and produce power won’t come to pass if we don’t address ‘back end’ issues.” The ability to dispose of reactor wastes, store radioactive materials, and determine the best way to recycle and get beneficial use from existing waste, along with transporting wastes by rail or highway to repositories, constitute these back-end issues, Dennis says. “You don’t have a complete fuel cycle if you don’t work these issues.”
Right now these back-end issues — some economic, some technical, some political — have blocked the cycle’s completion, Dennis says. His center has outlined a number of these issues to help decision makers with informed decisions. “The Russians have significant knowledge in these areas, and we need to work with them to sort through some of the new reactor concepts as they come forward.”