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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

5 big strides from Argonne towards nuclear energy’s future

Argonne uses multidisciplinary expertise and preeminent high performance computing facilities to explore the potential of nuclear energy. Here are five fission-centric forays into the potential of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy has tremendous potential to help the U.S. reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It produces minimal waste, leaves a small land footprint and already supplies roughly one-fifth of the nation’s total electricity. In honor of Nuclear Science Week, Oct. 17-21, scientists and engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory are celebrating five new ways of tapping the promise of nuclear energy.

1. Develop powerful mini reactors

Commercial nuclear reactors, many of which evolved from Argonne designs and experiments, have key advantages over other power sources. They are not weather dependent and they operate more than 93% of the time. This makes nuclear power the most reliable clean energy source in the country.

Argonne works with industry partners, the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, and the DOE Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program to design, analyze and model small and micro reactors. Argonne is partnering with reactor design companies TerraPower and X-energy to construct two advanced nuclear reactors. Each of these reactors may deliver significantly more energy per quantity of fuel while generating less waste than traditional reactors. That’s clean energy.

2. Use AI to lower costs

Just as sensors in cars alert drivers to vehicle issues like low tire pressure, sensors in nuclear reactors can signify performance issues in valves or pumps. If computers can be taught to recognize anomalies, inspections and verifications can be automated.

With funding from the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, Argonne scientists are building systems to streamline operations and maintenance at nuclear reactors. They are creating a computer architecture that can detect problems early and recommend appropriate actions to human operators. The technology could save the nuclear industry more than $500 million per year.

3. Recycle nuclear fuel 

Nuclear energy produces minimal waste, but minimal is not the same as zero. Argonne and industry partner Oklo are developing an innovative approach to recover and recycle valuable nuclear materials from used nuclear fuel.

Their joint project, which focuses on the commercialization and licensing of an electrochemical technique called pyroprocessing, considers advanced facility designs and ways that AI and machine learning can help safeguard processes.

The DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy awarded Argonne and Oklo $3.6 million to continue the work.

4. Model an entire nuclear reactor

When it comes to designing the next generation of small modular nuclear reactors, it’s good to be exact. Engineers want high fidelity numerical simulations of the reactor core before they ever attempt to construct one in real life. So, Argonne gave them one.

The lab’s newest computer model visualizes a full reactor core at unprecedented resolution. Funded by the DOE’s Exascale Computing Project, scientists plan to use the model to conduct simulations on exascale supercomputers such as the forthcoming Aurora, which will perform more than 2 billion billion calculations per second. This will improve understanding of reactor behavior and yield information that can drive down costs of building new, intrinsically safe nuclear reactors.

5. Understand sodium’s role

Molten metal — sodium that has been heated to almost 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit — is beautifully versatile in nuclear science. It can keep reactors from overheating, it can safely store large amounts of energy and it can be used as a nuclear fuel.

The next generation of nuclear experts look to study other small- and medium-sized components at Argonne’s Mechanisms Engineering Test Loop (METL) facility. The METL is the largest liquid metal test facility in the U.S. It can hold 750 gallons of reactor-grade sodium and heat that sodium to 1,200 F. The sodium can then be pumped through the METL’s diagnostic loops, past more than 1,000 sensors, and through numerous test vessels in order to collect important data scientists need. This hands-on experience at Argonne, which reveals successes as well as perceived failures, promises better liquid metal technology programs and invaluable training for the nuclear industry’s future engineers and scientists.

The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.