ORNL's Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Science and Engineering is responsible for the laboratory's nuclear research and development portfolio, including fuel cycle and isotopes research, reactor modeling and simulation and nuclear security technology. In addition, Beierschmitt is also the Executive Director of the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) and leads initiatives for a small modular reactor technology, research and licensing ORNL's legacy nuclear and radiological facilities. He also oversees the Department of Energy's first Energy Innovation Hub—the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL).
We asked Dr. Beierschmitt how his organization mirrors the Laboratory's past accomplishments as well as its future aspirations.
ORNL has a long history of nuclear research and development. How do our current research efforts reflect that legacy?
The laboratory is, in large measure, defined by its materials research. That's how we got our start in the Manhattan Project, working with exotic nuclear materials. The nuclear challenges of the future are, in large measure, materials problems as well. Success in combining our tradition of nuclear research with our more recently developed computational and materials research and development capabilities is what defines us as a nuclear lab today. We have close to 700 staff members working in areas related to nuclear science and engineering— on projects ranging from nuclear nonproliferation studies to developing materials and components for fusion reactors. These nuclear capabilities are a benefit of our legacy here at ORNL. We want to ensure that these unique capabilities are preserved for our nation's future research and development efforts. To this end, we are currently thinking about what the next-generation high-performance research reactor will look like so that these strategic capabilities are preserved. We must also ensure that ORNL research and training programs stimulate the next generation of leaders in U.S. nuclear science and engineering in the same way the laboratory's Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology of the 1950s and 1960s motivated the leaders of the world's first nuclear energy era.
What do you see as the direction of ORNL's nuclear research program over the next decade?
I think our concentration will continue to be largely in the area of fundamental sciences. We do applied work in the areas of nonproliferation and isotope production, but most of our work will continue to be fundamental research. A good example of the need for this kind of research can be found in the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. that generate 20 percent of the nation's energy. If we're going to extend the lives of these facilities, we're going to have to do a lot of research on materials to understand what effect another 20 years of operation will have on key reactor components. Also, in a post-Fukushima world, the nuclear industry is going to want to develop more robust reactor fuel—again a materials problem. Our research programs investigating more durable fuel and fuel cladding are well positioned to help answer these questions. Of course CASL and our related computational modeling tools give us the simulation capability to understand what happens inside a reactor as it ages or when a system fails. This will help drive our experimentation going forward. The combination of these capabilities makes us unique in the world.
How will simulation science help shape the next generation of nuclear reactors?
Simulations allow us to explore what happens at the nanoscale and see the resulting effects on the macroscale. For example, we can look at minute details of how nuclear fuel interacts with its cladding and then scale those observations up and apply them to the reactor as a whole. Not only do we get answers from these simulations, but these studies often help guide the next set of questions—the experiments that allow us to validate what we've seen in the model.
What are the laboratory's contributions to the ITER fusion reactor project?
ORNL has the lead administrative role in the U.S. contribution to ITER. We also have scientists who work on the ITER team on projects like the cryogenic system that injects the fuel into the reactor, plasma control systems and a range of materials development projects. In parallel with our ITER project responsibilities, we expect to increase our long-standing research into the interactions between plasma and various materials since that is one of the challenges in the quest for practical fusion energy.
How have recent events at Japan's Fukushima nuclear facility affected ORNL's nuclear research program?
We are working with the Department of Energy to reevaluate our national research and development priorities to ensure that we're appropriately focused on the challenges that are most urgent and relevant for sustaining and expanding nuclear power as part of our nation's portfolio of clean energy options. We don't think current plans will require a lot of change, but we do see a need to reestablish certain priorities, including developing more robust fuel that can survive reactor system failures, exploring the potential for small modular reactors that may offer enhanced passive safety features, and revisiting issues surrounding the storage and recycling of used fuel.
What do you see as nuclear energy's biggest promise and biggest challenge?
I'm a firm believer that the U.S. economy is going to be driven by the global competition for energy. As emerging countries consume more energy, we're going to be in competition for resources, and cheap fossil energy will be a thing of the past. I support renewable resources like solar cells, biofuels and wind power. However, to get enough power on the grid to meet the demand, nuclear has to be part of our nation's energy equation. It's not a question of if it happens, but when. Our society will decide that we need dependable energy that's not carbon based and not driven by global competition. The sooner we move toward nuclear power in a decisive way, the better off our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be.