INL’s MARVEL could demonstrate remote operation on a micro scale

The Department of Energy launched a 14-day public review and comment period on January 11 on a draft environmental assessment for a proposal to construct the Microreactor Applications Research Validation & EvaLuation (MARVEL) project microreactor inside Idaho National Laboratory’s Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) Facility.

The basics: The MARVEL design is a sodium-potassium–cooled thermal microreactor fueled by uranium zirconium hydride fuel pins using high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU). It would be a 100-kWt reactor capable of generating about 20 kWe using Stirling engines over a core life of about two years.

The DOE proposes to install the MARVEL microreactor in a concrete storage pit in the north high bay of the TREAT reactor building. Modifications to the building to accommodate MARVEL are anticipated to take five to seven months. Constructing, assembling, and performing preoperational testing are expected to take another two to three months prior to fuel loading.

EPRI names Rita Baranwal as new VP of nuclear, CNO

Baranwal

The Electric Power Research Institute today announced Rita Baranwal as its new vice president of nuclear energy and chief nuclear officer. Baranwal succeeds Neil Wilmshurst, who was promoted to senior vice president of energy system resources in November.

Baranwal most recently served as the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for its Office of Nuclear Energy, where she managed the DOE's portfolio of nuclear research for existing and advanced reactors and new designs. Baranwal unexpectedly resigned from that position late last week.

The year in review 2020: Waste Management

Here is a look back at the top stories of 2020 from our Waste Management section in Newswire and Nuclear News magazine. Remember to check back to Newswire soon for more top stories from 2020.

Waste Management section

  • First-ever cleanup of uranium enrichment plant celebrated at Oak Ridge: The completion of the decades-long effort to clean up the former Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant was celebrated on October 13, with Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette joining U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, and other state and community leaders at the East Tennessee Technology Park, where the uranium enrichment complex once stood. Read more.

The year in review 2020: Research and Applications

Here is a look back at the top stories of 2020 from our Research and Applications section in Newswire and Nuclear News magazine. Remember to check back to Newswire soon for more top stories from 2020.

Research and Applications section

Reclassification of HLW could reduce risks while saving billions, DOE says

An engineered stainless steel container designed to hold LLW at Hanford. Photo: Bechtel National, Inc.

A Department of Energy report to the U.S. Congress shows that the reclassification of high-level radioactive waste could save more than $200 billion in treatment and disposal costs while allowing DOE sites to be cleaned up sooner—all still without jeopardizing public health and safety.

The report, Evaluation of Potential Opportunities to Classify Certain Defense Nuclear Waste from Reprocessing as Other than High-Level Radioactive Waste, identifies potential opportunities for the DOE to reduce risk to public and environment while completing its cleanup mission more efficiently and effectively. Those opportunities are based on the DOE’s 2019 interpretation of the statutory term HLW, which classifies waste based on its radiological characteristics rather than its origin.

Under the DOE’s interpretation of HLW, waste from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel may be determined to be non-HLW if the waste (1) does not exceed concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste as set out in federal regulations and meets the performance objectives of a disposal facility; or (2) does not require disposal in a deep geologic repository and meets the performance objectives of a disposal facility as demonstrated through a performance assessment conducted in accordance with applicable requirements.

Feature Article

John Gilligan: NEUP in support of university nuclear R&D

John Gilligan has been the director of the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) since its creation in 2009 by the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE). NEUP consolidates DOE-NE’s university support under one program and engages colleges and universities in the United States to conduct research and development in nuclear technology. The two main R&D areas for NEUP funding are fuel cycle projects, which include evolving sustainable technologies that improve energy generation to enhance safety, limit proliferation risk, and reduce waste generation and resource consumption; and reactor projects, which strive to preserve the existing commercial light-water reactors as well as improve emerging advanced designs, such as small modular reactors, liquid-metal-cooled fast reactors, and gas- or liquid-salt-cooled high-temperature reactors.

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Savannah River contract awarded to Battelle-led group

A new M&O contract was awarded for SRNL. Photo: DOE

A management and operating (M&O) contract for the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) valued at approximately $3.8 billion was awarded to Battelle Savannah River Alliance (BSRA), a consortium of universities and private firms led by Columbus, Ohio–based Battelle. Awarded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, the cost-plus-award-fee contract will include a five-year base period (inclusive of 120-day transition period) and potential term of up to five more years, for a total period of up to 10 years.

As announced by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management on December 22, the new SRNL M&O contract is expected to enhance the laboratory’s ability to focus on research and development, increase its flexibility to pursue more diversified projects, and attract talent and the involvement of other research and academic institutions in its projects.

BSRA takes over responsibility for the SRNL work scope from the larger Savannah River Site (SRS) M&O contract with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. The transition of the management and operation of SRNL to the new contract will start following issuance of a notice to proceed to BSRA, the DOE said.

Congress set to pass year-end funding bill

The final text of the approximately 5,600-page Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 was released on December 22. While the timing of final passage is still fluid, the Senate was expected to approve it and send it on to President Trump to sign into law, according to John Starkey, American Nuclear Society government relations director.

Below are some key funding highlights from the legislation pertaining to nuclear energy.

Initial takes on Biden’s pick for DOE secretary

Granholm

Two op-eds published recently discuss president-elect Joe Biden’s pick—former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm—to run the Department of Energy. The first is from Llewellyn King, the creator of The White House Chronicle, and the second op-ed is from Hayes Brown, a columnist for MSNBC.

Both op-eds reach similar conclusions in that they do not see Granholm as the right choice to head the DOE, mainly because “despite its name, dealing with energy production isn’t the Energy Department’s main function,” as Brown points out.

DOE issues Versatile Test Reactor draft EIS, confirms INL as its “preferred alternative”

The Department of Energy has begun the environmental review of its proposed Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), releasing a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for public review and comment on December 21. The sodium-cooled, fast-neutron-spectrum VTR is intended to enhance and accelerate U.S. research, development, and demonstration of innovative nuclear energy technologies.

Energy Sciences Coalition issues letter to Biden’s DOE transition team

The Energy Sciences Coalition (ESC) issued a letter today to the incoming Biden administration’s transition team for the Department of Energy. The ESC is a broad-based group of organizations representing scientists, engineers, and mathematicians from universities, industry, and national laboratories that is committed to supporting and advancing the scientific research programs of the DOE and, in particular, the DOE Office of Science.

Press Release

ESC letter to DOE transition team

A PDF version of the letter from the ESC is available to download here.

Dear Dr. Arun Majumdar and DOE Transition Team Members:

The Energy Sciences Coalition (ESC) thanks you for your public service. As you prepare policy and funding recommendations for the incoming Biden Administration, ESC urges you to prioritize investments in the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. The DOE Office of Science is critical to advancing the fundamental science and early-stage energy technologies necessary to achieve ambitious net-zero goals; developing Industries of the Future and emerging technologies; and maintaining the highly skilled science and technology workforce that is essential for the United States to compete globally.

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New U.S. space nuclear policy released

An artist's concept of a fission power system on the lunar surface. Image: NASA

A national strategy for the responsible and effective use of space nuclear power and propulsion (SNPP)—Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6)—was released by the White House on December 16 as a presidential memorandum.

Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion. Nuclear energy can produce more power at lower mass and volume compared to other energy sources and can shorten transit times for crewed and robotic spacecraft, thereby reducing radiation exposure in harsh space environments. SPD-6 establishes a road map for getting space nuclear systems into service and sets up high-level goals, principles, and federal agencies’ roles and responsibilities.

NNSA to review its “dilute and dispose” option for surplus Pu

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration intends to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) evaluating alternatives for the safe disposal of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium through its Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program (SPDP). The NNSA published in the December 16 Federal Register its intent to prepare the EIS, which will examine the agency’s preferred alternative, “dilute and dispose,” also known as “plutonium downblending,” and other identified alternatives for disposing of the material.

The NNSA is offering the public the opportunity to comment on the proposed scope of the EIS until February 1. In light of the COVID-19 health crisis, the agency will host an Internet- and phone-based virtual public scoping meeting in place of an in-person meeting. The date of the meeting will be provided in a future notice posted on the NNSA website.

Five advanced reactor designs get DOE risk reduction funding

The Department of Energy today announced $30 million in initial fiscal year 2020 funding—with the expectation of more over the next seven years—for five companies selected for risk reduction for future demonstration projects. The chosen reactor designs from Kairos Power, Westinghouse, BWX Technologies, Holtec, and Southern Company collectively represent a range of coolants, fuel forms, and sizes—from tiny microreactors to a molten salt reactor topping 1,000 MWe. They were selected for cost-shared partnerships under the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) through a funding opportunity announcement issued in May 2020.

“All of these projects will put the U.S. on an accelerated timeline to domestically and globally deploy advanced nuclear reactors that will enhance safety and be affordable to construct and operate,” said Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. “Taking leadership in advanced technology is so important to the country’s future, because nuclear energy plays such a key role in our clean energy strategy.”

President's Column

The value of “fluffy” stuff

Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar

You know the old saying that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach? Well, I say anyone thinking that way should be kept far away from students!

In my time at Argonne National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory, I worked with incredible scientists and engineers doing cutting-edge research. Unfortunately, making progress in research is not always conducive to the education and training of those who haven’t yet gained the necessary expertise. And there is an interesting phenomenon that occurs the more one gains in education and experience: We tend to forget what we were like before, what it was like not to know everything we do now. More than one of my PhD colleagues at the national labs dismissed the education and outreach efforts that I pursued in my spare time: scouts, K-12 classroom visits, teacher workshops, science expos, etc., viewing any focus other than the truly technical as just “fluffy” and a waste of valuable time and effort.

Powering the future: Fusion advisory committee sets priorities

The Fusion Energy Science Advisory Committee (FESAC), which is responsible for advising the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, on December 4 published the first public draft of Powering the Future: Fusion and Plasmas, a 10-year vision for fusion energy and plasma science. FESAC was charged with developing a long-range plan in November 2018.

The scope: The report, which is meant to catch the eye of leaders in the DOE, Congress, and the White House, details the needs of the fusion and plasma program identified by a FESAC subcommittee—the DOE Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee for Long Range Planning—with the help of the fusion research community. The yearlong Phase 1 of the Community Planning Process, organized under the auspices of the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics, gathered input and yielded a strategic plan that is reflected in the FESAC’s draft report.

DOE to provide $12 million for nuclear data research

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to provide up to $12 million for new research on nuclear data in support of crosscutting research. The aim of the program is to expand and improve the quality of data needed for a wide range of nuclear-related activities, from basic research in nuclear science to isotope production and nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

“Increasingly, precise data on the properties of atomic nuclei are central to enabling groundbreaking advances in medicine, commerce, and national security,” said Chris Fall, director of the DOE’s Office of Science, on December 7. “This program targets crosscutting opportunities to enhance the curation of existing nuclear data archives, as well as research to lay the groundwork for new applications in areas of national need.”

WIPP could run out of disposal space, GAO says

The aboveground portion of WIPP’s current ventilation system. Photo: GAO

A study of the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has found that the repository faces long-term issues with ensuring sufficient physical space and statutory capacity to dispose of the federal government’s inventory of transuranic (TRU) waste. WIPP is the United States’ only repository for the disposal of TRU waste generated by the DOE’s nuclear weapons research and production.

The Government Accountability Office study, Better Planning Needed to Avoid Potential Disruptions at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (CAO-21-48), was published on November 19.