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Researchers at GW receive federal funds to study the effect earthquakes have on nuclear reactors

WASHINGTON A team of George Washington University researchers have received federal funding to study the effects earthquakes have on nuclear reactor cores. The findings of the research have implications for nuclear reactor construction and analysis well into the future.

Philippe M. Bardet, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and lead researcher on the project, and his colleagues, Elias Balaras, associate professor of engineering and applied science, and Majid Manzari, professor of civil and environmental engineering, were recently awarded more than $860,000 over three years by the U.S. Department of Energy to devise a model for simulating the impact of fuel rod vibrations inside a nuclear reactor.

The researchers, all members of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) faculty, will be modeling the most common type of reactor in the United States, called a pressurized water reactor (PWR). In a PWR, steam is made from water outside the reactor core, while water inside is used as a coolant.

"GW's effort is focused on what is happening at the fuel rod level, namely, can fuel rods bend during an earthquake," said Dr. Bardet. "If they do, there is a risk that the fuel cladding, or pipes that contain the fuel, can be damaged, prematurely releasing radioactive materials into the water. Another risk is that the thimble guides used to guide control rods, which regulate the reactor, can bend as well, preventing the insertion of the control rods."

The research is part of an international contributory approach in which a series of experiments will be conducted in concert with the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in France and the Argonne National Lab (ANL), a research laboratory operated by the University of Chicago for the Department of Energy.

Dr. Manzari and Dr. Bardet will conduct small scale experiments on the earthquake simulator, or "shake table" located at GW's Virginia Science and Technology Center in Ashburn, Va. Dr. Manzari and Dr. Balaras will simulate the experimental results with the end goal of testing and validating ANL's Simulation-based High-Efficiency Advanced Reactor Prototyping, or SHARP, concept.

"ANL and the CEA are no-cost collaborators on this project," said Dr. Bardet. "One purpose of this project is to validate a numerical model, called SHARP that Argonne National Lab has been developing over the years. SHARP is used for designing new nuclear reactors and fuel and analyzing the safety of new and existing nuclear reactor plants."

Students of both Dr. Balaras and Dr. Manzari will play roles in the research. Several of Dr. Balaras' students will build a detailed computational model of the experiment setup that Dr. Bardet and Dr. Manzari are designing.

"It will be a high-fidelity model able to provided detailed information of the dynamics of the overall system," said Dr. Balaras.

Meanwhile Dr. Manzari's student will assist in the design of the test section of the support structure which include testing on the shake table and performing some numerical simulations associated with the infrastructure of a reactor. All the experiments will take place at the VSTC campus.

"One of the main questions we are trying to address is can fuel assemblies containing the nuclear fuel be damaged during an earthquake?" said Dr. Bardet. "There are no accurate tools to address this question."


Contact: Latarsha Gatlin
George Washington University

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