Three University of California campuses have received $5.4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund nuclear energy research over the next several years, beginning what some researchers have said will be a transformation in the way nuclear energy is generated in this country.
As part of the department’s Nuclear Energy University Programs, the money will be allocated to three UC Berkeley researchers, one UC Santa Barbara researcher and one researcher at UC Irvine to study more efficient ways to harness nuclear power and to develop cleaner technological alternatives to nuclear waste management.
“As part of our commitment to restarting the American nuclear industry and creating thousands of new jobs and export opportunities in the process, we are investing in cutting-edge nuclear energy research projects that can develop the technologies required to advance our domestic nuclear industry and maintain global leadership in the field,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in a statement.
Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons said in a statement that the department would allocate up to $39 million to fund 51 nuclear research projects at universities around the country.
After this initial announcement, the department will enter into a several-week contract negotiation process to set up a multiyear contract with the individual researchers.
Because of the long negotiation process, UC Berkeley researchers will receive initial funding in early 2012, said Per Peterson, chair of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering and a principal investigator in the research being funded.
Peterson said he anticipates a three-year contract in which the U.S. Department of Energy will allocate $600,000 toward his project for developing new reactor technologies.
Some of the money will fund the study of how fuel moves through a graphite pebble bed, Peterson said.
According to Peterson, this technology will allow heat to be produced at extremely high temperatures without releasing radioactive material.
“This will increase the efficiency of converting fission energy — heat — to electricity,” Peterson said. “Instead of driving steam turbines like nuclear reactors do today, the energy the fuel and pebbles create will be able to drive gas turbines.”
Ehud Greenspan, a campus professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, said in an email that he will use the grant to develop reactors that create electricity with more efficiency than the boiling water and pressurized water reactors being used today.
The third UC Berkeley researcher to be funded by the grant, John Arnold, a professor in the department of chemistry, is working to find chemical solutions to nuclear waste management, according to the proposal he sent to the department.
Peterson said the U.S. Department of Energy commonly funds UC Berkeley researchers and is currently funding a nuclear engineering study on heat transfer and reactor safety.
According to Peterson, this new funding will enable researchers to look into a broad range of issues.
“This way we can research how to not only create more efficient reactors but also how to apply the (fuel and pebble) technology to other processes, like desalination and low-carbon liquid fuels,” he said. “It will improve the economics of nuclear energy.”
Amruta Trivedi covers academics and administration.