GE Research gets 4.5M federal grant to help improve nuclear power

NISKAYUNA — General Electric researchers in Niskayuna are helping design a system to reprocess spent nuclear fuel as part of a federal effort to expand use of nuclear power in America.

The Department of Energy earlier this month announced a $4.5 million award to GE Research for the project, and $31.5 million for 10 related projects.

Nuclear power is the largest component of the United States’ clean-energy portfolio, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, and development of a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors with improved performance requires improved management of nuclear waste.

“Developing novel approaches to safely manage nuclear waste will enable us to power even more homes and businesses in America with carbon-free nuclear energy,” she said in a news release.

For its part of this effort, GE Research is collaborating with Idaho State University and Lumitron Technologies to develop ways to extract usable material from spent nuclear fuel.

GE’s principal investigator on this project, Andrew Hoffman, compared it to a lobster dinner at a restaurant: There’s likely still some good meat hidden somewhere in the shell when the diner takes off his lobster bib and pushes back the plate.

If that meat can be extracted and consumed, there’s less waste and less mass to dispose of.

Spent nuclear fuel can be dangerously radioactive for 100 centuries or more after it is removed from a reactor, Hoffman said, so there’s real benefit to extracting and reusing as much as possible, rather than increasing the expense and effort of storing it safely and securely for 10,000 years.

“What this program is doing is helping us find a way to reuse the fuel,” he said.

The cost of doing this with existing technology has been prohibitive.

GE has just one part of the bigger picture. It’s helping design a way to find the remaining lobster flesh, not extracting it or cooking it up into a new entree.

“We’re enabling the bigger picture,” Hoffman said. “That’s one of our biggest missions here at GE Research, bridging the gap” between science and practical application of science.

As it progresses, the team at GE Research will be working with computer simulations and surrogate materials that have properties similar to uranium isotopes. It won’t be working with actual spent nuclear fuel.

The project uses as a springboard some of the medical imaging technology developed by GE and Lumitron.

“The basic components of a CAT scan are going to be the components of the system,” Hoffman said. “The technique we’re using is pretty unique and novel.”

An X-ray works by hitting tissue with radiation and seeing how the atoms absorb it. This project seeks to have only the atom’s nucleus absorb radiation.

“We’re going one step further, we’re going one step smaller,” Hoffman said.

Compounding the challenge, the technique has to send its own radiation and measure the feedback through the massive output of radiation from the spent fuel, and differentiate between the two.

The scanning system will have a radiation emitter and a radiation receptor but it’s operating in a busy environment, the equivalent of two people talking in a room with the stereo turned up.

“The idea is how do we filter out the background,” Hoffman said.

The research team brings a variety of experience and expertise to the project but much of it centers on nuclear power.

Hoffman, a Virginia native and Schenectady resident, is a materials scientist by practice and a nuclear engineer by training; others on the team are nuclear engineers as well.

GE researcher Bogdan Neculaes has worked on medical imaging with Lumitron.

Chad Pope worked extensively at the Idaho National Laboratory before joining the faculty at Idaho State University.

The three-year project will seek first to establish proof of concept, then to create a workable design for a commercially feasible prototype.

“The end goal of this program is to find a commercial partner,” Hoffman said.

The $36 million worth of grants announced March 10 are part of the Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems program at the Department of Energy’s research-support agency. Along with GE, another Capital Region recipient was on the funding list: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, which was awarded $607,000 to research a different aspect of the advanced nuclear reactor fuel cycle.

Elsewhere in New York, Stony Brook University was awarded $3.4 million to improve fuel utilization and reduce waste.

The Department of Energy on March 15 announced the next round of funding would be worth $48 million.

It too is designed to reduce nuclear waste, but is dubbed Converting UNF Radioisotopes Into Energy, or CURIE.

The Ministry of Clever Acronyms would be proud, as might pioneering radioactivity researcher Marie Curie.


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