3D-printed nuclear reactor promises faster, more economical path to nuclear energy

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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IMAGE: The Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration Program uses thermal imaging to actively monitor the direct deposition of stainless steel to 3D print a component. The hexagonal structure took close to 40… view more  Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., May 11, 2020 — Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are refining their design of a 3D-printed nuclear reactor core, scaling up the additive manufacturing process necessary to build it, and developing methods to confirm the consistency and reliability of its printed components.

The Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration Program‘s unprecedented approach to nuclear energy leverages advances from ORNL in manufacturing, materials, nuclear science, nuclear engineering, high-performance computing, data analytics and related fields.

The lab aims to turn on the first-of-its-kind reactor by 2023. The program has maintained its aggressive timeline during the COVID-19 pandemic, using remote work to continue design and analysis efforts. [TCR video]

“The nuclear industry is still constrained in thinking about the way we design, build and deploy nuclear energy technology,” ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said. “DOE launched this program to seek a new approach to rapidly and economically develop transformational energy solutions that deliver reliable, clean energy.”

Reactor development and deployment have traditionally relied on materials, fuels and technology pioneered in the 1950s and ’60s, and high costs and decades-long construction times have limited the United States to building only one new nuclear power plant in the last 20 years.

TCR will introduce new, advanced materials and use integrated sensors and controls, providing a highly optimized, efficient system that reduces cost, relying on scientific advances with potential to shape a new path in reactor design, manufacturing, licensing and operation.

The TCR program has completed several foundational experiments including selection of a core design, and a three-month “sprint” that demonstrated the agility of the additive manufacturing technology to quickly produce a prototype reactor core.

Researchers will now focus on refining the selected design and the processes that will ensure an optimal and reliable energy system. Monitoring technologies continually assess the manufacturing process, providing live data streams that enable real-time qualification of the printed material and performance analysis through artificial intelligence. The team also conducts extensive post-build testing to assess component performance and establish links between the behavior of each unique part and its live manufacturing data.

“We have been aggressively developing the capability to make this program a reality over the last several months, and our effort has proven that this technology is ready to demonstrate a 3D-printed nuclear reactor core,” said Kurt Terrani, the TCR technical director. “The current situation for nuclear is dire. This is a foundational effort that can open the floodgates to rapid innovation for the nuclear community.”

As part of deploying a 3D-printed nuclear reactor, the program will also create a digital platform that will help in handing off the technology to industry for rapid adoption of additively manufactured nuclear energy technology.

“The entire TCR concept is made possible because of the significant advances in additive manufacturing process technology,” Terrani said. “By using 3D printing, we can use technology and materials that the nuclear community has been unable to capitalize on in the last several decades. This includes sensors for near autonomous control and a library of data and a new and accelerated approach to qualification that will benefit the entire nuclear community.”

Through the TCR program, ORNL is seeking a solution to a troubling trend. Although nuclear power plants provide nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity, more than half of U.S. reactors will be retired within 20 years, based on current license expiration dates.

“The TCR program will provide a new model for accelerated deployment of advanced nuclear energy systems,” Zacharia said. “If cost and construction times are not addressed in the very near future, the United States will eventually lose its single largest source of emissions-free power.”

ORNL is partnering with Argonne and Idaho national laboratories and engaging with industry to enable rapid adoption for commercial use.

The Transformational Challenge Reactor builds on ORNL’s 77-year history of international leadership in nuclear science and technology development. The lab began as home to the world’s first continuously operating reactor, and its scientists and engineers pioneered technology and expertise in the first decades of the Atomic Age.

Today, the lab operates the High Flux Isotope Reactor, a DOE Office of Science user facility that provides a world-leading source of neutrons for a variety of research and produces isotopes for medicine, industry, and space exploration. TCR will be the 14th reactor built and operated by ORNL.

“Since its inception as the home of the X-10 Graphite Reactor, ORNL has been at the forefront of nuclear science and engineering,” Zacharia said. “Today, our expertise and unparalleled scientific tools create an opportunity to chart a new course in the nuclear field.”

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TCR is supported by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.

Image: https://www.ornl.gov/sites/default/files/2020-03/press_release_image.jpg

Caption: ORNL scientists have selected and optimized a design for printing over a three month period, demonstrating the ability to rapidly produce a prototype reactor core. Credit: Brittany Cramer/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

TCR video of 3D printing: The Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration Program uses thermal imaging to actively monitor the direct deposition of stainless steel to 3D print a component. The hexagonal structure took close to 40 hours to build, with temperatures reaching over 1,400 degrees Celsius around the melt pool where a laser heats and melts while adding a new layer. Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

From EurekAlert!

60 thoughts on “3D-printed nuclear reactor promises faster, more economical path to nuclear energy

  1. There are good reasons that only one nuclear power reactor has been constructed in the United States in the last 20 years, and none of those reason are waiting for 3D printing. Not only do these projects face an adversarial permitting process, but they are susceptible to having their operating license revoked for any reason or no reason. Properly sited, operated, and inspected nuclear power plants are great sources of dependable and affordable energy. If a 3D nuclear power plant showed up in my neighborhood, along with the teenage geek squad to assemble it, I would be a little nervous. Stay sane and safe.

    • Agreed – it is not the technical challenges, it is the fact that almost half the funding goes to satisfying regulatory requirements and defending against the unending wave of lawsuits. Better to just develop the thorium salt process, which does not require this level of manufacturing to work. We could use their input on materials and instrumentation to develop the fuel recycling process.

      • Are you kidding? Molten salt reactors are probably a good use case for 3D printing unlike this story. The operating temperatures are so extreme that the alloys required are most likely extremely difficult to process using conventional machining. I saw nothing in the article to explain why this reactor core geometry demands 3D. But it’s got AI, so it’s sciency enough for the EurekAlert! interns to hype it.

        Looking at the experience of the additive manufacturing industry getting approvals for aerospace applications from the FAA, it seems ridiculous to expect the NRC to allow it any time soon. Even more ridiculous to imagine that the anti-nuke thugs would not apply their lawfare tactics just as aggressively if not more so.

        • Ugh.
          Molten salt.
          I worked with a gentlemen who was on one of thsoe projects 50’s/60’s, it was decided they were too dangerous to operate.

          The biggest problem is cooling the pump motors. Water is the best medium for cooling, but doesn’t interact very well with liquid salts.

          PWRs are very reliable and safe (compared to BWRs, and don’t even start on breeders). The Navy has been operating them since the USS Nautilus, circa 1958.

          • No, it wasn’t.

            Yes, the Navy has been operating small LWR that fit inside a steel shell. And we’ve been stuck with that same expensive design for 70 years. Using water as your coolant with its terribly low boiling point is a big part of the cost of a “modern” reactor. The whole thing is basically a steam explosion waiting to happen.

            And then you have the added fun of evolving hydrogen due to the Zirconium cladding around the fuel elements reacting with high temp steam, so even if your pressure vessel holds the steam pressure due to loss of coolant, it still has to deal with a (chemical) hydrogen bomb (see Fukashima).

            Can LWR be run safely? Yes. Are they passively safe? No. Are they cheap? No.

          • “tsk tsk May 11, 2020 at 9:26 pm

            The whole thing is basically a steam explosion waiting to happen.”

            Exactly! Chernobyl.

          • tsk tsk

            While I agree they are not cheap the USN has been safely operating those reactors for decades. Those reactors have both active and passive safe guards built into their design, I would argue they are safer than civilian designs. They also are no more of a steam explosion waiting to happen then any other steam powered ship. A major steam rupture is going to kill everyone in the engine room in seconds whether that steam was generated using nuclear, oil, coal or gas. FYI, a primary coolant rupture will not kill anyone directly via steam by design during normal operation. There are no people in the reactor containment space and it is vented to the outside of the ship in case of a rupture.

            While they are not 100% safe no nuclear reactor (or any other power generating plant) is going to be 100% safe especially installed on a war ship that will take punishment from enemy fire.

          • tsk, tsk./Patrick
            You’re confusing pressurized water reactors with boiling water reactors.
            The boiling temp of water increases with pressure.

            PWR reactors are designed to reduce power if steam is produced in the core.
            Chernobyl, from my understanding, had a positive void coefficient that causes reactor power to increase with steam production.

            As Darin noted, the Navy has been operating reactors for over 60 years.

          • I believe the present reactors used by the US Navy are liquid metal cooled, not PWRs. I think they have been used starting with the Seawolf-class and are used in the Virginia-class subs and in the Ford-class carriers.

            Regarding molten salt reactors, what specifically was so dangerous about them?

          • Chernobyl used a graphite moderator rather than water or boron, hence the positive thermal coefficient. That the “engineers” decided to run a test by shutting off the coolant without any other safety measures in place pretty much ensured that A) a steam explosion was likely to occur, and B) the graphite would ignite which added to the problem.

            The other big problem: no containment vessel. Apparently the Russians didn’t feel the need for a containment vessel since the Superior Socialist Reactor Design didn’t require one because they don’t melt down like Running Dog Capitalist Designed Reactors….

    • “There are good reasons that only one nuclear power reactor has been constructed in the United States in the last 20 years, and none of those reason are waiting for 3D printing.”

      And what about all those nuclear reactors built for and installed on ships of the US Navy? Our sons and daughters sleep so very close to them. And they’re not glowing in the dark…..

      • Thank you.

        USN NNPP is at about SEVEN THOUSAND (7,000) Reactor-years of safe operation. Not cheap, but reliable, even as the quality of the operators …

  2. What makes you think that the anti-nuclear crowd will stop with their lawsuits and regulations once thorium reactors are developed? It matters not if the new tech may be safer and cleaner, they will still be hellbent on shutting it down.

  3. Excellent! But more excellent if they can publish the plans to 3D print a Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor.

    • Will Mr. Fusion take beer bottles?
      I avoid the canned stuff.
      Fusing Silicon into Nickel?
      Versus believing that Mr. Fusion fuses Aluminum cans into Iron as an energy source?

  4. “The Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration Program uses thermal imaging to actively monitor the direct deposition of stainless steel to 3D print a component. The hexagonal structure took close to 40 hours to build, with temperatures reaching over 1,400 degrees Celsius around the melt pool where a laser heats and melts while adding a new layer.”

    Why bother?
    Interesting science and cool bleeding edge toys are not the only methods to construct such a cage.
    EDM and or machining should be able that stainless steel cage quicker and more cheaply.
    When stainless steel 3D printers are common and far far quicker, then using the 3D printer might make sense.

    • … EDM and or machining should be able that stainless steel cage quicker and more cheaply.

      That’s sure not a given. Show me your numbers.

      • No numbers.
        Just common sense.
        The picture they show is not difficult to manufacture; that is, the same basic functionality can be achieved without pretending 3D printing is necessary or even advantageous.

        There are a multitude of methods to make high quality metal parts.
        Straight walled parts are not difficult.

        • The story says the part took around 40 hours to print.

          What I see are deepish cuts and thin walls and some tight corners. Conventional CNC could hog it out pretty fast but the details are going to take thin, fragile, bendy, cutters and the removal rate is going to plummet. Somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about could calculate how long the process would take but my guess is more than 40 hours.

          EDM doesn’t have a fabulous removal rate but it would do the job. The electrode wear is pretty fierce so you’re going to go through a bunch.

          Without a lot more details, I wouldn’t dismiss the 3d printing technology in favor of conventional CNC or EDM. I’d really like to see some numbers.

  5. they left out Big Data in their buzzword salad … building a reactor has never been the issue … lawsuits and regulations can’t be solved by “3D” anything … this looks like a “fund” pitch …

  6. 3D printing could be an important advance in nuclear power technology. The reason most of the world’s fast breeder reactor projects of the 80’s and 90’s failed, such as the Dounreay plant in Scotland where I completed a masters research thesis, was the same: failure of piping at welded junctions, especially when carrying molten metal.

    The Russians in their Beloyarsk plants are the only ones who succeeded where everyone else failed, they now have fast breeder reactors continually and uneventfully supplying their grids. How? They clearly found an alternative to welded junctions in pipes. We don’t know what this is – maybe just intelligent moulding of parts. It’s not 3D printing, this was done decades ago, too early for that. But there’s a chance that 4d printing / if the material properties are sufficient, may prove as reliable as whatever it is the Russians are doing with Beloyarsk.

      • That is my base understanding of the process. 3D metal printers are basically high end NC welders that continually weld onto their previous work. Not my skill set but we are getting into discussions about the actual grain and crystalline structure of the deposited metal if I remember my old text books correctly.

        3D printing is interesting, but then again I have a mechanical background – I find buttress thread form interesting. At the end of the day 3D is just another manufacturing process, not magic.

        • The more conventional metal 3d printing lays down a thin layer of sintered metal and fuses it with a laser. It keeps going in that manner for as many layers as it takes.

          The process described in the story sounds a lot like the way you describe.

      • No welding. No cutting. No machining. Even some engine blocks are made form compressing metal powder in a dye. No cutting, no welding.

    • It is sometimes profitable to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid fabricated structures. Example ‘A’ would be the Heavy Press Program. In WW2, the Germans were building some kinds of aircraft at a rate that we could not understand. They were stamping bulkheads that we had to assemble by cutting and welding and machining and riveting, etc. etc. It was a huge advantage.

      I see 3D printing as obviating the need for heavy presses. 3D printers are way cheaper than heavy presses and you could make up for their (much) slower speed by having a bunch of them.

      Maybe the Achilles heel of Candu reactors is the necessity of retubing them. If 3D printed assemblies could cut down the required time, and therefore labor costs, a whole bunch of bucks could be saved. (Yes I know the technical and regulatory hurdles involved.)

  7. There is no doubt whatsoever that this development would never have been rolled out had Trump not won the presidency. Nevermind the Democrats. Low-Energy Jed wouldn’t have done it, or any other Republican of the heritage variety, who were content to let their platforms drift leftward standing up to their waist in the swamp. The the left had built an inertia that the ‘right’ considered too big to turnaround. Maybe Ted Cruz had the cojones for such a bold move.

    This top down determination was essential. The article even says that “DOE launched this program to seek a new approach to rapidly and economically develop transformational energy solutions that deliver reliable, clean energy.” The naysayers always said nuclear was too expensive, but this was ridiculously assuming 1950s-60s technology (which was pretty darned good in retrospect) with no understanding that the activist pressures and their linear thinking had kept 70yrs of the most transformational period of technological development ever out of the picture.

    Note that the main naysayers are journalists, philosophers, politicians, wifty-poofty professors of smoke-shoveling diversity faculties and other innumerate personages.

    Here is a prediction that is a no-brainer. Nevermind how far we put off peak oil, we are predestined to go to the atom for the energy of the future. If this project produces its planned result by 2023, sensible people will bemoan the fact that we wasted trillions on technologies that even optimistic back of envelope analyses told us that they were a total lost cause. Even sensible people who may be misguided on climate would have to agree if such people are actually out there.

  8. It is interesting (even funny) that, throughout the above ORNL press release, one finds no mention of “fission” or “fusion”. Methinks there is a big difference between the two, the former have been successfully used in commercial and military reactors, the latter still in dreamland.

    Admittedly, the phrase ” . . . have limited the United States to building only one new nuclear power plant in the last 20 years” in the PR leads one to believe they must be talking about small fission reactors.

    But then there is no mentioning how to get around the issues of shielding against nuclear radiation exiting the core or cooling the micro-reactor core against meltdown.

    Modern, industrial scale nuclear fission power plants have an overall thermodynamic efficiency of about 33%, so 3000 MWth of thermal power from the fission reaction is needed to generate 1000 MWe of electrical power.

    Let’s just assume we can preserve that same 33 % thermodynamic efficiency in a “pocket” fission power plant scaled to power the highest-peak load demand of a typical US single residence home (i.e., about 4 times the daily average 1.25 kW) . . . that translates to needing to generate a peak of about 5 KW electric, which in turn means having to reject a peak of about 10 kW to some “sink” somewhere in or outside the home. Talk about thermal pollution!

    The numbers would be much worse using a “pocket” fission power plant to power an EV (for example, one today that can go, say, 250 miles on 75% DoD of a 100 kWh battery pack at an average sustained speed of 65 mph). That’s an average continuous draw of about 20 kW. And the associated necessary rejection of 40 kW thermal is a big load of heat to dump via air cooling.

  9. I remember the days when Xerox was new and all. 3D printing of a nuclear reactor core is science fiction. What’s next? “Earl Gray Hot” and scones?

  10. So all I need to do is attach a 3d printer to my computer, download a design, and I can make my own nuclear power station?

    • You WILL need to take advantage of Amazon’s great deals on uranium-235 or plutonium-239, when they come up.

    • Reactor grade stainless alloys are not currently available in wire form, only powder and ingot.

      • RoHa could switch to a more expensive “printer” that uses laser sintering of powdered metals to create 3D shapes.

        Unmentioned in the above dream-time article is the fact that 3D-printed parts are very rarely net shape exiting the “printer”. For complex shapes, post-3D-printing machining clean-up is necessary to remove support webs/posts and to obtain desired surface finish and part tolerances (if dimensions to < +/- .005 inches is required).

  11. I am all for the advance of building techniques, but until we address the issues with anyone for any reason being able to stop the building of a nuclear facility no matter what the cost to the builders, we will never be able to build a large number of reactors.

    I suggest that in lawsuits if a NGO wants to halt the construction they get to foot the bill, day by day, until they either wind the suit (and get their money back) or lose the suit (and all the money for the delay). There has to be a real cost to the harassing organizations or they will just keep suing. And make certain company’s can go after the NGO’s principles and main contributors if they try to declare bankruptcy.

    Same for pipelines.

  12. A really dumb article – the future of nuclear power is NOT that of pressurized water reactors, with or without 3d printing. It is molten salt small mosular reactors, which are light years ahead of conventional light water reactors in every conceivable way – cost (about half the cost of conventional reactors) safety (intrinsically safe, incapable of a meltdown, come what may), quickly buildable in factories and quickly installable in sites which can be virtually anywhere (no need for any body of water for cooling – they are air cooled).

  13. The technical issues with nuclear energy is not really an obstacle, the real problem is down to the wider attitudes of much of America’s influential class. Through their control of the regulatory authorities and the support of a press whose sole goal is to promote fear the development of nuclear energy remains hide-bound and delayed by endless rule making. As we can readily see today, it is not just nuclear power that drives these people, a substantial cohort of elected officials want to destroy America, they are using the SARS COV2 virus to try and do so.

  14. I’m always a little suprised by WUWT reader’s and other “conservative’s” enthusiasm for nuclear. It produces the most expensive power of any source, and eats up subsidies like they’re hotcakes. Ever since the 1950’s promises have been made by nuclear proponents, and broken. To quote Admiral Rickover- talking about Naval reactors, but it applies to power reactors too.

    “An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose (’omnibus reactor’). (7) Very little development is required. It will use mostly off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.”

    And I might add, never will be.

    • Compare each of those attributes in a NNPP and a Nuclear Power Station. NNPP with ~7,000 reactor-years gets an up-check except for (6) and (8). The expense of an NNPP ship is not in the power plant.

  15. I work in the nuclear industry. Analysis of what went wrong at the V.C. Summer and Vogtle plants to build new units (which resulted in the cancellation of the former and significant delays in the latter), were not due to the inability to manufacture the nuclear-specific parts of the plant. We can build the components that contain the core and that convert the heat (e.g., steam generators), just fine. In fact, over the last 20 years there has been a robust economy for replacement of steam generators at nuclear plants. The industry is very efficient at manufacturing them and installing them.

    The real problem at V.C. Summer and Vogtle was on the civil engineering side. That is, we (and I mean the US and Europe) have forgotten how to build large concrete structures to necessary quality requirements. Therefore, while I realize that being able to 3D print components has a certain “gee whiz” factor, I doubt that it will have much impact on the economics of nuclear power plants.

    What the US needs to do is figure out how to do the civil engineering. The Chinese have been able to do it. We should be investigating how they manage it (and hopefully the answer is not reduced quality standards).

  16. I read this thread with growing amazement at the lack of any mention of environmental contamination or other safety issues with the storage, transport, and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive machinery.

    I then searched the page for the words “spent”, “storage”, “disposal”, “contamination”, “radioactive”, and “environment”, and got zero hits…

    Fukushima still has no better solution for handling its radioactive coolant water than to store it in tanks that leak into the ocean. And I’ve heard or read of no proposals for long term storage for spent fuel that don’t require lengthy transport by road or rail.

    It seems to me that safe disposal of radioactive byproducts remains the key unresolved issue with nuclear energy . And that probably won’t be addressed by 3D printing.

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