Associate Head, Nuclear Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Nov 19, 2018
1 - International Pursuit of a Career in Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: Tell me about yourself.
Jacopo Buongiorno: Jacopo Buongiorno grew up in Italy and came to MIT in the U.S. for his doctorate, which he completed in 2000. He worked for four years at the Idaho National Lab (INL), which was then called the Idaho Engineering and Environmental Laboratories. In 2004. Buongiorno returned to MIT to join the faculty of the nuclear science and engineering department. His undergraduate nuclear engineering degree was completed in Italy at Politecnico di Milano and Buongiorno felt the professional opportunities were the best in the U.S. In 1986, the accident at Chernobyl happened and Italy fought against nuclear in 1987. Buongiorno enrolled in his first nuclear program in 1990, attracted by the diversity of topics and subjects that he would be exposed to since nuclear is inherently multidisciplinary. It was clear to Buongiorno that nuclear held great promise in terms of satisfying the world’s energy needs and being overall safe and clean. While at INL, Buongiorno was heavily involved on a lead bismuth cooled fast reactor, a follow-up project of his thesis project. Lead bismuth has benign behavior in interactions with other materials and has a very good natural circulation potential. The lead bismuth technology was developed and deployed in the Soviet Union, used for a class of submarines. Without any oxygen, the lead bismuth attacks metals. A little bit of oxygen creates a protective layer, but too much oxygen creates a lead and bismuth oxide sludge.
2 - Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT
Bret Kugelmass: What specifically where you focusing on during your thesis at MIT and later at Idaho National Labs?
Jacopo Buongiorno: Jacopo Buongiorno was working mostly on the natural circulation behavior of the lead bismuth fast reactor system during postulated abnormal events. During these events, the normal heat removal path through the steam generators or the intermediate heat exchangers is lost and decay heat must be removed another way. One idea looked at was the implementation of RVACS (reactor vessel auxiliary cooling system) in lead bismuth reactors, which was developed for sodium reactors. The thermal capacity of the coolant can be leveraged to delay the rise in temperature inside the reactor, but the decay heat lingers and the system will accumulate too much energy. There are ways to remove decay heat in a reliable and robust way without relying on active systems, such as utilizing natural circulation. The desire to teach as always in the back of Buongiorno’s mind and he enjoyed the teaching assistant experience he had while at MIT. Buongiorno was attracted to the freedom of academia and the renewal that comes with new classes of students. He has been teaching for 14 years and is now the associate head of the nuclear department. The first “Future of Nuclear Power” report was conducted in 2003, led by professors John Deutch and Ernie Moniz. The landscape for nuclear, and energy in general, 15 years ago was much different than today. People were excited about a potential upcoming nuclear renaissance, fossil fuels were relatively expensive, and wind and solar were on the radar, but not as credible as they are now. Two years ago, the nuclear department at MIT decided to launch a new study on the future of nuclear.
3 - The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World
Bret Kugelmass: What are initial conversations like to rally support for a study on the future of nuclear?
Jacopo Buongiorno: Conversations start at the individual level, one-on-one, with colleagues to talk about how things have changed for nuclear. The new report is called “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World”. Electricity and power are the primary products of nuclear energy, but are not the only products. The report focuses heavily on the power sector, but also on non-electricity applications. MIT wanted to look at what role nuclear could play as the world seeks to decarbonize its energy systems. A region-specific analysis must be done because the input in the study is highly dependent on the region. Nuclear plant construction is built at a higher cost in the U.S. and at a lower cost in Korea, China, India, and Japan. Some ideas and innovations have been identified that could lower the cost of nuclear. The largest cost of nuclear is in the construction of the plant itself. If nuclear is in the business of reducing costs, the way the plant is built and delivered must be reconsidered. Just changing the coolant or the fuel for the sake of innovation will not reduce cost. A small reduction in construction costs could make a big difference in the capacity of nuclear that could be deployed. In order to get solid cost estimates for nuclear, or other complex technology, one must proceed into higher level design cost estimates.
4 - Construction Costs of Nuclear Plants
Bret Kugelmass: Why are construction managers doubling their costs in their revisions to original estimates for nuclear power plant construction?
Jacopo Buongiorno: Predicting the cost and execution of the project has been a spectacular failure in the nuclear power plant industry. The AP-1000 was designed and received a design certification, but the type and amount of design that is done for licensing is fundamentally different than the detailed design needed for construction. There was a commercial pressure within the companies to start and external constraints such as loan guarantees or production credits, causing companies to rush into the construction process. The industry in the U.S. and in Europe is proficient at operating the plants, but constructing the plants is a skill that must be rebuilt. The total cost of delivering a nuclear power plant includes buying the components from a supplier, financing, site preparation, civil works and labor, engineering costs, including design and licensing, and so-called owner’s cost, which includes the cost of the land or other things. The direct cost of equipment is 20-25% of the cost of nuclear plants. The cost of the installation, including heat sink, excavation, and preparation is about 50% of the cost. The implications of this finding are that different areas need innovation, such as concrete structures, excavation, or design. MIT’s report identifies three or four innovations outside the traditional realm of nuclear engineering which have the potential to reduce the cost because they tackle the question of how the plant is built, not what specifically is built.
5 - Government’s Role in Nuclear Energy Development
Bret Kugelmass: Who is the audience of MIT’s report “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World”?
Jacopo Buongiorno: “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World” has a diverse set of audiences. The first chapter, aimed at energy policy planners, looks at the role that nuclear power can play in a decarbonized world so people can recognize that nuclear has to be part of the picture to solve global warming and reduce emissions. If nuclear is excluded, solar and wind must be built out enormously, with storage. The government has to play a role in supporting and providing R&D that targets such innovation. It also needs to put all low-carbon energy technologies on the same plane, instead of a potpourri of subsidies for certain technologies. Ideally, a carbon tax would be the best solution since it is technology-neutral, but it doesn’t have the political support. The government also plays a role in facilitating and promoting the development of new nuclear technology, potentially by providing sites where advanced reactors or small modular reactors (SMR) could be deployed. This class of advanced reactor technologies does not require anything new in the regulatory space, but some less mature Generation IV systems may require 25-30 years in the traditionally regulatory space. MIT looked at a way to potentially accelerate this process by combining the engineering demonstration and the full-sale demonstration into one machine, meaning the first machine must be built at full-scale. The prototype rule in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could allow the design and construction of the demonstration machine with a very large built in margin. Once the prototype is built, a series of incremental tests would give and create confidence in the system at each step. Once the program is done, the hope is that the NRC will approve the demonstration of technology and allow the plant to be first-of-a-kind.
6 - Modular Reactor Construction
Bret Kugelmass: Did MIT talk to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about innovation in the regulatory system?
Jacopo Buongiorno: MIT talked to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) during the development of the report. Many people thought there were multiple showstoppers on the thought of innovation in the regulatory system. Innovation in reactors may not be in new materials, but perhaps in a new layout or different concept in deployment of the machines. The idea of modular construction, or shipyard construction, has merit. The business of modularity has been on everybody’s mind in the nuclear community. MIT looked at how the modular construction approach has been a game-changer in other industries, since there is evidence that is has reduced cost. Chemical plants are by-and-large build modulary and assembled on-site. Virginia-class nuclear submarines have been built more and more modularly, which has enabled a lower cost and more compressed schedule. After a study on the ABWR in Japan, modular construction made a difference on the order of 20%. In a separate effort from the study, MIT looked at building modular reactors in shipyards and integrating them into platforms. Buongiorno continues to teach classes at MIT, but has changed direction in his research space. He still continues to work on a couple of projects in his traditional area of thermohydraulics and boiling heat transfer, but Buongiorno has started new projects that address the question of how to integrate innovations in construction into new reactors. One new project is with Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) who is looking at the Japan nuclear system of the future. After Fukushima, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of nuclear in Japan, so this project is an opportunity to change the debate on nuclear into something more positive.