By Luke Weir The Roanoke Times
With a recent grant of nearly $500,000 from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Virginia Tech researchers will work to improve computer models used to study the safety of nuclear power plants, said Yang Liu, associate professor of nuclear engineering. Said.
“NRC, as a government agency, they want to evaluate what happens if there is a power outage, if there is a flood or an earthquake,” Liu said. “But to get the answer, they can’t do experiments. They can’t just break a pipe or turn off the power, because that’s too dangerous.
Computer code is therefore used to simulate conditions in nuclear reactors and to evaluate the safety of power plants in various scenarios. Safety can be improved by knowing how a nuclear reactor might react to a given situation.
“This research project is very fundamental. … It will improve the safety of the nuclear industry in general,” Liu said. “This will improve the current understanding of physical phenomena, and improve the code.”
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Liu is director of the Multiphase Flow and Thermal-Hydraulic Laboratory at Virginia Tech, where he is leading graduate students in developing new measurement techniques for bubble nucleation and droplet dynamics, among other research efforts.
“The research project that Virginia Tech is performing for the NRC essentially we take some experiment data using a lab-scale facility,” Liu said. “We will then use the data to benchmark the model, which will be used for NRC to evaluate the safety of nuclear power plants.”
Once ready, the new computations are expected to significantly improve measurement accuracy compared to existing methods, according to the grant application.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear power plants are among the safest and most secure facilities in the world. According to 2021 data from the US Energy Information Administration, about 19% of the total electricity generated in the US comes from nuclear power.
But accidents at nuclear power facilities can have adverse effects on people and the environment, making safety central to their design, location and operation.
“This is a very exciting opportunity for Virginia Tech for our nuclear engineering program,” Liu said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
In a plan released by the Virginia Department of Energy this October, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Virginia needs to move on to innovation in nuclear and various other forms of generating clean energy.
Nuclear power accounts for about 14% of the state’s total electricity capacity. Another 50% of that capacity is natural gas, according to 2021 figures recently included in the state energy plan.
The plan calls for two nuclear power stations in Surry and Louisa counties to produce about 95% of the state’s reliable, clean energy.