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Researchers at MIT and Tsinghua University in Beijing will collaborate on the development of a pebble-bed nuclear reactor, thanks to an international agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy and the China Atomic Energy Authority. The reactor could become a cost-competitive, meltdown-proof alternative to today's commercial nuclear power plants.
For the past six years, MIT and Tsinghua research teams have been working independently on studies of the modular high-temperature pebble-bed reactor. MIT researchers have been performing analytical studies and simulations, while Tsinghua researchers have built and are running experiments in a 10-megawatt (thermal) research reactor, the world's only operating pebble-bed reactor.
Now the teams will be able to work jointly. Their collaboration is the first covered by a new international agreement, adopted in mid-September, that establishes mechanisms for the United States and China to exchange technologies and ideas relating to nuclear power.
"The agreement provides an incredible opportunity for bringing the world together on this promising technology," said Professor Andrew Kadak of the Department of Nuclear Engineering, who leads the MIT research and was instrumental in the three-year effort to get the agreement signed. He is now contacting other pebble-bed researchers in the United States, Europe, South Africa and elsewhere to develop a list of important topics to address.
Professor of Nuclear Engineering Mujid Kazimi, director of MIT's Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, stressed the importance of the international agreement, which covers the commercial exchange of technologies as well as collaborative research and defines procedures for the government-to-government exchange of nonproliferation assurances.
The current MIT research on the pebble-bed reactor dates back to an MIT Independent Activities Period class led by Kadak in 1998.
Instructed to find a technology that could address the competitive and political challenges of the nuclear industry, students selected the pebble-bed reactor--a design originally developed in Germany in the 1960s and studied by the late MIT Professor Lawrence Lidsky in the 1980s. The reactor's name reflects its fuel: uranium is encased in billiard-ball-sized graphite pebbles that cannot get hot enough to melt within the small core and are "prepackaged" for long-term disposal without reprocessing.
Kadak, co-principal investigator Ronald Ballinger (associate professor in the departments of nuclear engineering and materials science and engineering) and a student design team began taking a fresh look at all aspects of the technology, including the fundamentals of fuel design, safety and the power conversion system. Recently, their attention has focused on the modular approach to construction. Block-like structures containing specified components would be manufactured in factories, shipped and assembled at the site--an approach that could cut construction costs in half.
The "plug-and-play" approach to construction and the small size of the reactor could revolutionize how nuclear plants are built. "If this works, the economic obstacle to building new plants will be removed," said Kadak. If competitive, such small, modular plants will be attractive not only to the U.S. market but also to China and other rapidly developing countries that have widely dispersed populations.
Initial exchanges between MIT and Tsinghua were supported by the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives. Research funding was subsequently provided by the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and the Department of Energy. Current funding comes from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 2003.