UF Nuclear Engineering Program Secures Nearly $1.8 million in NEUP Awards

Michael Tonks, Ph.D., Donald Wall, Ph.D., Justin Watson, Ph.D.
(L to R): Michael Tonks, Ph.D., Donald Wall, Ph.D., Justin Watson, Ph.D.

The Department of Materials Science & Engineering’s Nuclear Engineering (NE) Program received three separate awards totaling approximately $1.8 million from the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP), part of the U.S. Department of Energy. NEUP awards fund research and development, scholarships, infrastructure upgrades and integrated research projects at universities and colleges nationwide.

Yellowjacket Upgrades 

Michael Tonks, Ph.D., Alumni Professor of Materials Science & Engineering, and his research team are using their $692,088 award to improve the alloy corrosion modeling software program known as Yellowjacket, a platform first developed by Dr. Tonks in 2018 and used in the design of molten salt reactors (MSRs). 

“MSRs are one of latest nuclear reactor concepts, and utilize extremely hot, liquidized salt as fuel instead of traditional solid pellets or rods,” said Dr. Tonks. “The molten salt acts as both fuel and coolant for the reactor, and it’s an innovative technology with the potential to make nuclear power even safer and more efficient. But, as with nearly any material that is in constant contact with salt, corrosion is a primary concern.” 

Upgrading Yellowjacket to include the impact of stress and irradiation will improve the team’s ability to predict the microstructure changes caused by alloy corrosion due to molten salt. They can then validate the improvements by comparing the outcomes to new experimental data.  

UFTR Infrastructure Upgrades 

University of Florida Training Reactor (UFTR) Director Donald Wall, Ph.D., received a $282,000 award for infrastructure upgrades. The UFTR will acquire an upgraded, automated pneumatic sample transfer system to move samples into the reactor for irradiation and then back to the laboratories. 

“The samples will be inside small shuttles that resemble miniature versions of what you use at a bank drive-through,” said Dr. Wall. “The purpose is to transfer them quickly from the lab to the reactor and back, in a very direct way.” 

The new format also minimizes physical contact with the samples. “This kind of system allows us to handle a larger number of samples quickly and precisely and will also enable us to complete experiments that are time-sensitive,” added Dr. Wall. “The way we currently transfer samples is already safe, of course. This pneumatic upgrade enlarges the experimental capability of the entire facility.” 

Improving Nuclear Fuel Analysis 

Justin Watson, Ph.D., associate professor, received an $800,000 award to help develop a high-fidelity modeling tool that can capture some of the critical phenomena in high burnup Uranium Dioxide (UO2) and accident tolerant fuels (ATFs) during transient conditions. 

 ATFs are a combination of new fuel and cladding designs that improve the safety and performance of the fuel during normal operation and severe accident conditions. Due to these performance increases, these new ATFs can potentially have higher burnups than traditional fuel. There is currently little data on the performance and structure of high burnup UO2 fuel and ATFs under transient (or accident) conditions. Dr. Watson’s research will use existing data and the experimental results from the Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) at the Idaho National Laboratory to improve the mechanical behavior of nuclear fuel. With improved computational models available, he can analyze and quantify the safety of these fuels and improve on the codes that predict fuel behavior at high burnup conditions. 

“In the long term, we’re looking to improve the safety and the economic competitiveness of nuclear power,” said Dr. Watson. “ATF designs use new materials that can reduce hydrogen buildup, have better fission product retention and improved structural integrity in high radiation and temperature environments. All these factors have an overall effect on improving the safety of the current and future nuclear fleet. ATF design also improves how the fuel reacts during severe accidents. This performance improvement could lead to longer cycle lengths for nuclear reactors. Anytime a nuclear reactor is shut down for refueling, it’s losing money.” 

Congratulations to the NE Program on their well-deserved NEUP awards.