The Manhattan Project

Kevin Clarno's Interview

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Kevin Clarno's Interview

Kevin Clarno is a group leader in reactor physics and a distinguished R&D staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). He is also the former director of the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors at ORNL. In his interview, Clarno explains how he became interested in science and technology while growing up in Texas. He discusses his work with models that can forecast the longevity of nuclear reactors around the United States. Clarno advocates for the continued exploration into the field of nuclear energy, and stresses the importance of an informed public on the topic.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 25, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Wednesday, April 25, 2018. I’m in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and I have with me Kevin Clarno. The first thing I want is for him to say his name and spell it.

Kevin Clarno: My name is Kevin Clarno, K-e-v-i-n C-l-a-r-n-o.

Kelly: Great. What I’d love to hear first is a little bit about yourself – about where you were born and your childhood and how you got interested in being a scientist.

Clarno: I was born in Illinois and moved to Texas when I was eight years old. Growing up, my Dad was a waste water engineer and worked on a variety of projects from dirty water to clean water, and has gotten involved in dams and dam safety in the Lower Colorado River Authority area of central Texas.

So growing up, I’ve been involved and gotten to see all kinds of engineering things, and my Dad had Popular Mechanics laying around all the time. I loved picking up his Popular Mechanics and just reading all the different fascinating stories and engineering news records and what’s going on. Those things were just laying around the house, and, with free time, I would pick it up and start reading it and exploring what kinds of things are going on in the world. Just the whole concept of all of the different pieces that get built and created and the new technologies that are coming have always fascinated me.

At a young age, I excelled in math, but I really enjoyed science and building and construction kind of things. As I was going through high school, we had a physics class my senior year, and sat down and started looking at different energy choices and energy options. The concept of climate change: is it real and where is it coming from? As we were talking about it and working through these issues, it just became clear that energy density is such a big, important factor in what we do. 

With coal and oil, you’re breaking chemical bonds to release the energy. With nuclear, you’re breaking the atomic bonds. You need hundreds to thousands times more mass to produce the same amount of energy. It takes hundreds of train cars of coal or oil to produce the same amount of energy in just a pencil eraser-sized piece of uranium fuel.

It became very clear that just simply to produce this energy, we’d need fields and fields of solar panels or wind turbines to compete with the same amount of energy that’s produced in just this tiny little piece of this uranium. There’s so many places throughout the world that have a lack of energy, and energy is going to be needed more and more as third-world economies start growing and turning over. There’s never going to be a lack of need for more energy. It became clear that we needed a very heavy energy density source of electricity. It was clear that in the long run, even as new technologies and energy efficiency improve, there was going to be a strong need for nuclear energy, for nuclear fission power.

As a high school senior, early on in my senior year of high school, I realized this is something that just makes fundamental sense. There are all kinds of issues surrounding it, and the more I’ve been in the field the more I’ve learned. There are all kinds of regulations and challenges. But deep down, the same fundamental principle holds. You have a huge amount of energy in a very small space, and all of the waste from that starts out in a metal tube and it just gets hot. When you’re done and you’re ready to get rid of it, it’s still contained in that same metal tube. You don’t have to have filters, you don’t have to have anything trying to catch and capture the waste coming from this.

It just makes inherent sense, and so it’s been fascinating to have that as my career, to try to help it get implemented correctly in a way that’s efficient and can last.

Kelly: Currently, what’s your angle on this? What are you doing to achieve your goal?

Clarno: Right now I’m the director of a consortium of a whole bunch of universities, national laboratories, and industry partners. We’re working together to identify what are the biggest challenges in the nuclear field that are addressed in industry right now. The industry has identified several things that, if we could overcome these, could make nuclear power significantly cheaper. We could significantly understand the safety of these reactors, so that we can understand where we’re throwing away fuel out of overly cautious margins. Understanding where there are excessive margins that can be reduced that aren’t providing value to the industry or adding to the safety of the plant.

We are using the supercomputers here at Oak Ridge. We’re using some of the fastest computers in the world to create computer models of how these reactors are operating and what would happen if there were an accident, to understand exactly what’s going to happen. We have almost 100 plants in the U.S. that are operating nuclear reactors, providing 20% of the electricity for the country. With that, these reactors are operating and they’re operating safely, effectively, efficiently, and they know how to run these plants. But there is no reason to take any risks with regard to safety. So we’re able to create computer models that predict what is happening in the plant today, and be able to say, “What would happen if tomorrow something failed, some safety system failed? What would happen to the plant? What would happen inside of that reactor plant?”

Kelly:  So this goes to anticipating emergencies and also in the design of the next generation?

Clarno: Yes. Our current focus right now is understanding the biggest challenges in the existing plants. We’ve actually focused on light-water reactors and almost entirely on just one piece of those, which is 70% of the light-water reactors, the pressurized water reactors. We’re trying to understand their biggest issues and understand how we can use these advanced tools to overcome it.

In an industry that is very conservative, they are not bold in taking new risks and new options. They don’t want to make any change that would in any way put the plant or the investment, let alone the safety of the public, at risk. We have to do a lot of work in order to demonstrate we really do understand exactly what’s happening inside of these systems.

Inside of these systems, you have very high radiation environments, very high temperatures, coolant flowing. You don’t wind up having a whole lot of sensors and detectors to know exactly what is happening in every single location. There’s no eyes that you’re putting inside of these reactors as they’re operating. Through our simulation tools, we’re able to give a clear picture of this is what is happening at every single location, every single millimeter inside of a plant. We’re able to give them a perspective of “this is what it looks like and this is what is really happening,” to a resolution they’ve never really had before.

We’re modeling all of the corrosion that’s building up on the outside of these protective metal tubes to understand how much corrosion is building up. What’s the effect of that corrosion? It’s a protective layer, so for some elements it’s good, but if it gets too thick, it can capture some of the other chemicals that are in the water that they use to control the chemistry. It can become bad. Understanding, in very high detail, what is happening, where is it happening, we can help the plants identify how they can operate the plants. How can they tweak the chemistry in the coolant, how can they adjust the way they’re operating, so that they’re operating safer, that they can increase the power they produce without impacting the safety of the plants or the public at all?

Kelly: The industry has asked for that? I mean, they’re part of this consortium.

Clarno: Yes.

Kelly:  So they’ve identified here some of the questions we have?

Clarno: Right. This started in 2010. There was a call for proposals and the consortium that we have wound up winning the proposal. It included Westinghouse, which is one of the main fuel manufacturers in the U.S. and had designed many of the plants that are operating here. It also included the Electric Power Research Institute, which does research throughout the country on electric things, or electricity generation. One of their main elements is nuclear power. They are a research service organization to the nuclear power industry throughout the country. They do a similar thing to what we’re doing, but we are able to leverage all of the expertise at the national laboratories and universities to do it collectively.

We also had as one of our prime partners the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates a suite of nuclear reactors here in the South, including Watts Bar Unit One, which has been operating since the ‘90s and is thirty miles down the road from Oak Ridge. They recently turned on Watts Bar Unit Two, and so, in 2010, that was the primary industry partners that we were working with. 

We were able to get all the information we needed on the plant design from Westinghouse, the fuel that’s gone in for the past twenty years. We’ve been able to get a clear picture and understanding of how their reactor was being operated. Then, develop the modeling simulation tools to predict every single — the full history of how that Watts Bar Unit One plant has operated. Through that we’ve been able to look at some of the challenges they’ve had throughout the years.

In the early 2000s, they had one of these chemistry problems. For a year and a half, they were operating, and they wound up having to reduce their power and shut down for a while to understand what’s going on with this chemistry and how do we fix this chemistry problem. We’ve been able to go back and look at the history of it and model and show, “this is what was happening with that chemistry issue, this is where you were having this corrosion product build up on the surfaces.”

Now, as we’re able to show this is what happened then, as other plants are concerned about the risk of having to shut down or reduce their power, we’re able to say, “Okay, let’s set up and make a model of your plant and predict the life of your plant from the past, but also going forward. Going forward in this next operating cycle, we’re going to help you understand what the corrosion is that’s building up on the surface of these rods. How would that have an impact on your plant operations?” So that they can make better informed decisions about how much new fuel do they need to add. The conservative thing is, “Let’s just get lots of new fuel,” because some of this fuel that’s been in for a while, it still has plenty of uranium, it still has plenty of energy stored inside of it. It’s conservative to say, “Well, let’s just throw that aside and throw it away.” But you’re just wasting this resource.

By being able to help them understand the operation of these plants, the chemistry buildup inside of these plants, they’re able to identify which of these fuel assemblies can they keep and let them stay in longer to use more of that fuel up.

It’s corrosion on the outside of the fuel rods. The fuel is on the inside and the water flowing past it has this corrosion, this crud buildup on the surface. Once they understand that that’s there, it’s okay for it to be there. But if it builds up too thick, or it captures too much of the boron that’s in the coolant, then it can actually cause the neutrons to get absorbed in that instead of getting absorbed in the fuel where it’s going to cause more fission. It wastes those neutrons and it drops the power in the top half of the reactor down to the bottom and can impact the safety systems.

When that happens they have to reduce the power. By helping them understand how close they are to a risk of that happening, they can decide, “We want to purchase less fuel, keep some of this older fuel in for another round.” We save the cost of that fuel. 

Kelly:  You can pinpoint the corrosive elements.

Clarno: Yes. We’re modeling the neutrons hitting uranium, causing a fission and sending out more neutrons. We’re modeling the distribution of those neutrons throughout the entire reactor plant. As it’s producing those neutrons, it’s heating up the fuels. The fuel is getting hotter, it’s thermally expanding, it has all kinds of radiation effects on materials. Corrosion or cracking and breaking of this fuel inside of this individual fuel pellet — but it’s getting hotter. All that heat is going out of the fuel pellet through this metal tube cladding, and outside of that metal tube, you have water flowing past to take the heat away. At that cladding and coolant interface is where you have this corrosion that will build up.

We’re able to model every single fuel rod, every single fuel pellet in the entire core, all with very high detail. Understanding through this radiation interaction what are the individual chemical elements that are here, what elements do they form, what’s the mechanical structure and rigidity of the materials involved. What is the corrosion buildup on the surface of these rods, so that the plant operators can understand how close are we to one of these power anomalies happening that will cause us to have to reduce power or shut down for a while.  

Kelly:  There’s so many variables, too. Who made the aluminum cladding.

Clarno: Yes.

Kelly:  When was it put in and the corrosivity of the water, that probably changes.

Clarno: Right. Even the past operation — because many of these fuel assemblies will stay in for two or three cycles, they’ll be in the plant for four and a half years. You can’t just model what’s happening today, you have to understand everything that happened for the past four and a half years and even before that. The fuel assembly that’s in there now was impacted by what assembly it was sitting next to three years ago. You really have to understand the full dynamic of how the plant has evolved and operated through the years.

Kelly: The plant has to be very cooperative with you to give you all this information.

Clarno: Yes, and that is what has been so unique and exciting. Earlier in my career, I was doing somewhat similar simulations for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The regulator does not necessarily get every ounce of data that exists, every specific enrichment of every fuel pellet. But this is something that the manufacturers of the fuel have. This is something that the operators of the plant have. By being in partnership with them, they have been able to supply us with “Here is the data, this is what’s happening.”

In the beginning, they were saying, “Okay, here’s the average of these hundreds of pins’ power distribution.” They were giving us this very coarse data.

We started to show them, “We are giving predictions on a centimeter basis.”

They said, “Oh, well, we have better data than we gave you. We just didn’t think you’d know what to do with it if we gave it to you.” They started to give us more and better data. Even now, as we’ve started generating these models and comparing them to the measurements that they have in plant – while limited in measurements, they have some.

Some of the differences that we’re seeing, they’re starting to wonder, “Is this because of the specific manufacturer-unique things of each individual fuel rod?” One of the things that we’re going to probably start looking at in the near future is, “What is the enrichment of every single fuel assembly? How much uranium-235 is in every single fuel pellet as it goes up axially in each one of these 50,000 rods in the entire plant?”

They have other things that they put in the plant to help control how it operates and keep the power distribution flat and effective and efficient. Understanding all of these, where are the uncertainties, where are the unknowns, and how do these unknowns impact these predictions that we have.

Clarno: It’s years of operation at these plants where they didn’t necessarily see the potential long-term uses of this data. Even in the collaboration with the plants, some of their early data, they have stored in paper files. They have stored in boxes somewhere off in the corner. The newest data, it’s relatively easy for them to say, “Okay, let’s just get a data save and we save it to this computer file and we make this file available to you.” But we want to be able to go back to the very beginning. What happened in the beginning, what accidents, what issues, what challenges did you have between day one you started up the plant and today?

To get that, those records, they have to go back into their files and dig through the paperwork to try to figure out what were the measurements back then, what was the loading in the enrichment.

Kelly:  You think you’d want to do a statistically representative sample. Because I’m sure that’s a lot of work.

Clarno: It is, but it can provide tremendous value. In the end, we have to make the case that our simulation tools are modeling their plants correctly. Or they should not trust that what we tell them is valid.

Kelly: Yes. Right.

Clarno: The more data that we can have to show, “I didn’t just guess and get a snapshot right today. I’ve been able to tell you what was happening in your plant, show you what was happening in your plant and help you to understand why it happened.” Because there were many issues that they had twenty, fifteen years ago that they know what happened. They have a pretty good idea of why it happened. But they have only a coarse picture of where it happened and how it happened and what they could have done differently to prevent it.

Now, we’re able to go back and show them in this great detail: this is exactly what happened and where it happened and why. So that they can start asking the question, “Well, what do we do so that it doesn’t happen again?”

Kelly: Well, that’s interesting. I certainly hope that you’re going to be able to extrapolate from this one plant, if you have two or three of these, where you see the patterns and come up with some general prescriptions.

Clarno: Yes. It’s changing in many ways the way that the DOE [Department of Energy] research labs can now interact with these commercial entities. As TVA was starting their Watts Bar Unit Two, which just started in April 2015, we started predicting what would happen before they started up. Before they even turned anything on, we started telling them, “This is what you’re going to see.” Now, obviously, to get the plant turned on, the people that sell them the fuel, the people that designed the plant have to tell them that also. But they were able to take those predictions that were at the more coarse scale and ours, with tremendously high resolution, and be able to overlay them and understand, “Are there differences? Why are there differences?” And then, when the plant started, be able to evaluate which one was more correct.

We continued to work with them. In the traditional plants going back in those records, we might get a “Here’s a data dump” once a month. With Watts Bar Two, TVA was supplying us with these data dumps every hour. Every single hour of operation from April 2015 to December when they went to full power commercial operation, they were giving us hourly snapshots of exactly what was happening. We were able to take the tools and look at every single test, every single ramp-up, and explore, “Is this system working what we expect? Okay, let’s shut down, let’s retest again, restart.” Through that entire period of time, we were able to do these hourly evaluations of the accuracy of our software compared to what is happening.

Through that process, they went through so many power-up and power-downs, we have been able to show and build a lot of confidence that we know what’s happening inside of that plant today better than any measurement tool they have. Because the measurement tool is taking it at one particular location, and we can tell them the picture everywhere.

Kelly: That’s very interesting. I’m just thinking now, the B Reactor, if you’ve been there at Hanford, they had gauges for every single one of the fuel containers, the rods that contain the fuel rods, the larger element. Not each little, I mean, they—

Clarno: Right.

Kelly:  Yeah.

Clarno: That’s critical on small test reactors, where you’re trying to understand how this reactor is operating. It’s critical to have all of these measurement devices. The test reactors that have been produced that were developed throughout the world were generally extremely well-instrumented, identifying flow patterns and temperatures and radiation flux measurements. It’s extremely useful, but that is when you’re trying to understand how the system works.

The commercial plants, they don’t want any of those things in there, because they’re a cost and they’re a hazard. If you have an extra flow meter sitting inside of it and it actually breaks off and goes flying around the reactor, it can cause damage. They want to have a sufficient number of detector and measurement devices, but they don’t want to have an excessively large amount, because it’s not adding any value and it can create risk.

Yes, it would be handy as a computer simulation person to have the data of every single ounce of information there, but it’s not a reality in these operating plants.

Kelly: Of the 100 plants that are in operation now, what percent are light-water?

Clarno: In the U.S.?

Kelly:  Yeah.

Clarno: All of the commercial plants are light-water reactor.

Kelly:  So what you’re doing on light water is potentially going to help those 100 plants?

Clarno: All 100 of those plants, absolutely. That is the goal, and we are working — the original team had Westinghouse and TVA and EPRI [Electric Power Research Institute], but as we continue to develop these tools, we have a guiding industry council that is composed of other fuel vendors and other utilities. They’re giving us input on what is important, what do we need to be doing, how should we change and restructure things, so that the work that we’re doing can impact the nuclear industry broadly.

Because it’s been happening over the past eight years, this has incorporated changes in the energy picture in the U.S. There’s a whole lot more wind and solar online today than there was when the original proposal was written. Today energy markets are different. There’s a lot more variability, because sometimes the wind’s blowing and sometimes it’s not. The energy prices, electricity prices, will go up and down throughout the day. The entire climate of how these nuclear utilities are operating in these plants has changed and become more challenging.

In the past there’s always a certain amount of — 80% of the maximum energy used during the day was used at the lowest time. So there’s a baseload amount of electricity – you always needed that. Everyone throughout the day, even at the lowest electricity time, you were going to have this amount that was used. There was a level, a place, for nuclear power, which is very expensive to build, but inexpensive to operate at just a constant power. There was this perfect place where nuclear energy filled a void, to be able to supply that baseload power.

You have other sources that were easy to just turn on and turn off, like natural gas, that would supply the other 20 to 30%. That baseload piece, coal and nuclear, really filled that margin. As there was talk of coal going away and reducing greenhouse gases, it made perfect sense that nuclear would fill that piece of the void. But because of the introduction of so much more solar and wind, there are times when that is supplying 80 to 90% of the electricity.

Kelly:  Solar and wind.

Clarno: Solar and wind in certain markets. Illinois, for instance, there have been a lot of tax credits and subsidies to help encourage these wind power wind farms. Because of that, the electricity prices can vary, and in fact, it can be negative. The federal government provides a tax subsidy for how much energy is produced. They’ll say, “Independent of the cost of electricity, we’re going to give you this much in tax credits.” Well, if there’s an excess amount of electricity available, the wind power companies can say to the state, “I will actually pay you to take my electricity, because I know the federal government is going to pay me more.” It produces negative electricity prices, where the utilities are paying the state, “Will you please take my electricity?” It doesn’t make any sense. But it’s what can happen when policies go wrong.

In the state of Texas, growing up, my Dad always talked about how there were wind turbines that were being built way out in west Texas. But all the electricity was being used on the sort of I-35 corridor, in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio area. Lots of electricity used there. Not much electricity needed out in West Texas. But there was a requirement that 10% of new electricity generation be renewable. The companies were building gas plants near the I-35 corridor where the people are, and they were building wind turbines way out in west Texas where the wind was blowing hard, but there wasn’t enough capacity to actually bring the electricity to where the people were. Out in west Texas, there was a lot of electricity being produced, but it wasn’t even making it to the markets where it was needed. Until there has been more and more buildup and they’ve started building in these big power lines to bring it there. So Texas is another place where they have very variable electricity prices. They can cause a challenge for some of these baseload power.

The result is, it’s much easier to build natural gas, which today happens to be inexpensive. 

But electricity generation in the U.S. is a very long-term planning thing. Whether you’re building dams or nuclear power plants, you’re talking about billion-dollar investments that have a return over fifteen, twenty years. It’s going to take a long time to get that return back, and the uncertainty that exists because these electricity prices are varying so much throughout the day, let alone year-to-year, just causes a lot of uncertainty. That makes utilities uncomfortable with building new, expensive generating capacity. It’s much easier to say, “Well, gas is inexpensive now, so let’s go ahead and build it now.”

Kelly: One of the things they talk about with solar is you need to store it. It’s sunny for all summer and you get excess energy, but it’s cloudy and rainy in the fall. You need battery storage capacity, then you can regulate these fluctuations. But for a baseload like nuclear and the market’s not right, can you store it and then release it in times when the prices are right?

Clarno: Yes. Conceptually, absolutely. There have been a variety of people looking at storage technology. It has been changing dramatically. You think of how big your phone used to be and how little battery life you got out of it fifteen years ago. Now, it has so much more power and so much more capability and it weighs less and is thinner. Battery technology has just been advancing rapidly. Whether it’s batteries or other things, the concept is the same. We need to be able to store this energy and use it when we want to use it.

That could have a huge impact across the electricity markets. But it’s unclear necessarily how that’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen, or whether it’s going to be one technology that revolutionizes things. Or even if it’s the electric vehicle fleet, because if it’s electric vehicles throughout the country, they all act as energy storage. They can charge when it’s inexpensive and use it whenever they want. It is also going to have to change how pricing and markets work. Because, to the end customer, to the homeowner, there is little reason to charge your car at night as opposed to the day, or at one time or another.

A lot of things will have to change, and it’s a struggle, because very minor tweaks in energy policy can have huge impact to the electricity-generating companies. Just this minor change in how much the tax credit you’d offer to renewable generators can have a big effect on, do electricity prices go negative or not? Or how negative do they go? Little, small adjustments to policy can have huge impact downstream.

Kelly:  I can see it’s really very complex.

Clarno: It is. Understanding the technology is also hard, because there are a lot of people with conflicting assumptions and interests. It’s important that we have a strong technical foundation for the decisions that we make. We cannot gloss over the impact of understanding the science and the technology behind the things that we use. So many people just walk to their wall and they plug in their phone and they ask for it to charge, and this magical electricity takes care of it. But there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes to provide that electricity to your house.

Little things that many people can do throughout the country – whether it’s individual homeowners or whether it’s politicians and businessmen – small changes can make a really big difference in the technology developed and how things are used in this country.

Kelly: That’s true. I thought when you were beginning your last paragraph that you were going to talk about the importance of public understanding of how nuclear works. I guess there certainly are some myths—

Clarno: Absolutely. Public understanding of technology in general — we need to have better public understanding of nuclear. There are a lot of misconceptions about the dangers of radiation, despite the fact that you get radiation from the sun every single day. It’s also understanding things like climate change. Understanding policy impacts and things that happen on page three of the newspaper can really have a big impact. It may not seem like much, but there are so many things that are happening throughout this world. Having a cursory look at whatever one thing concerns us today, and losing sight of the bigger picture and how all of the different things interplay, is really lacking.

Understanding, in depth, the science and how the science works is critical. If you don’t understand how the science works, then you can make foolish decisions or believe something somebody tells you, even when it’s not true. We also have to understand how that science interplays with all of the other domains out there.

My brother is a sociologist, and he studies how people think and communities think collectively. We, as humans, think collectively in many ways. We need to be able to understand the technology, but also understand how we impact each other and the decisions we make impact the people around us.

So much of social media feeds are dominated by drama headlines. No one clicks a news article that said, “Today, the nuclear reactor fifty miles away operated correctly and safely.” It’s just not a news story anyone cares about. On the other hand, if someone were to say, “I drove past a nuclear plant and I saw all kinds of white steam coming out the top of it,” they’d put a news report out, despite the fact that it did that every single day. Thousands of people would see the article that said there was white steam coming out of the nuclear power plant.

We have to have that fundamental understanding of the science and the technology in the world around us. How you help people get excited and interested about things worked as expected and designed is just not going to happen. How we go about that public communication, how we get the concept of nuclear has operated safely for generations — it’s not clear how we can make that social impact. That is a big challenge for the industry.

So the question: “What is the actual impact? How much money have we saved?” This program is eight years into a ten-year program. It’s been funded at $25 million a year. Every year and a half, a nuclear utility will do a reload, and they will take about a third of the fuel out of the reactor and put a new third in. It costs millions of dollars for that new fuel. These reactors are operating and every day that they’re operating, they are bringing in a revenue of about a million dollars a day. But since they’ve been around for so long, and the fuel costs in general are low compared to their revenue generation, they’re making solid chunks of money to be able to pay down their capital and generally operate in low cost.

The areas that we are really trying to impact the industry financially — this corrosion challenge — they recognize these reactor plants, every year and a half, could save a million dollars. There’s a solid chunk right there, if we can build in that confidence that they start making decisions with our tools instead of the existing tools they have.

We’re doing a lot of work on understanding the radiation that is getting out into key structural components of the reactors. The reactor core is sitting inside of one big solid chunk of steel, the reactor vessel, that holds that water in there pressurized. The life of the plant is really going to be dominated by the life of that vessel. If we can understand how much radiation is getting there, how much damage is getting to that plant, we can start to tell them: should this plant operate for forty years or sixty or eighty or one hundred, one hundred twenty? If we understand this key critical component, that when it goes bad it’s time to just turn the plant off – if we understand when it’s going to go bad – then we can help them know how long can they keep operating. Because that revenue, every single year they continue operating with the low fuel cost they have, they’re able to just continue to supply very inexpensive electricity to the public.

Then the other piece is understanding the safety. If they make changes in these plants, understanding what is the impact of changing out new safety systems? One of the trends in the industry right now is they’re looking at more accident-tolerant fuel. Can they design fuel that, if there were an accident, if there were something that happened in the plant, this fuel would not have any problems. There wouldn’t be any breaking of the fuel or any release of the fuel into the coolant.

Now, there’s several layers from the fuel being in the coolant to all the way out to the public, to protect it, but if you have a massive release of fuel into the reactor plant system, you’ll actually ruin that plant. That’s what happened with Three Mile Island back in 1979. The safety systems all worked as expected. The public was protected, because of the big containment. But the investment of that electricity generation and the billions spent to create it are still sitting in the same state they were: sealed up, closed up, not used again.

Being able to build in even more accident-resistant fuel inside of the plants — if we can get that fuel to operate just as cost-effectively as the fuel they’re using today, if there were an accident, they would still have the plant operating. They’d be able to turn it back on again immediately afterwards. It would be a huge increase in the financial investment and the safety of the system. We’re helping to get a better understanding of how these new fuel concepts would get incorporated into the system.

Then the other piece that we’re doing is we’re actually working with the regulator. In this environment, these utilities, any time they want to make a change, have to explain to an independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission body what change they’re going to make and how it is going to impact the safety of their systems. We’re working with the regulator to help the regulator understand how this advanced computing and this software we’re developing can help them understand the impact. In many cases, the industry may have a good idea, but they look at, “Well, convincing the regulator that it’s a good idea is going to take forever, so let’s forget it.”

By working with the regulator, we’re hoping that we can accelerate the understanding and the evaluation of some of these new concepts so we can get these accident-resistant fuels on the market sooner. To transform innovations that you see in universities and laboratories on new fuels and new protective claddings, transform these innovations from the experimental scale all the way into production, operating reactors. To be able to make that process happen much faster with a much better understanding of what to expect when you actually put it in the reactor.