For the United States to meet its net zero goals, nuclear energy needs to be on the smorgasbord of options. The problem: Its production still suffers from a lack of scale. To increase access rapidly, we need to stand up reactors quickly, says Isabel Naranjo De Candido, a third-year doctoral candidate advised by Professor Koroush Shirvan.
One option is to work with microreactors, transportable units that can be wheeled to areas that need clean electricity. Naranjo De Candido’s master’s thesis at MIT, supervised by Professor Jacopo Buongiorno, focused on such reactors.
Another way to improve access to nuclear energy is to develop reactors that are modular so their component units can be manufactured quickly while still maintaining quality. "The idea is that you apply the industrialization techniques of manufacturing so companies produce more [nuclear] vessels, with a more predictable supply chain," she says. The assumption is that working with standardized recipes to manufacture just a few designed components over and over again improves speed and reliability and decreases cost.
As part of her doctoral studies, Naranjo De Candido is working on optimizing the operations and management of these small, modular reactors so they can be efficient in all stages of their lifecycle: building; operations and maintenance; and decommissioning. The motivation for her research is simple: "We need nuclear for climate change because we need a reliable and stable source of energy to fight climate change," she says.
A childhood in Italy
Despite her passion for nuclear energy and engineering today, Naranjo De Candido was unsure what she wanted to pursue after high school in Padua, Italy. The daughter of a physician Italian mother and an architect Spanish father, she enrolled in a science-based high school shortly after middle school, as she knew that was the track she enjoyed best.
Having earned very high marks in school, she won a full scholarship to study in Pisa, at the special Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies. Housed in a centuries-old convent, the school granted only masters and doctoral degrees. "I had to select what to study but I was unsure. I knew I was interested in engineering," she recalls, "so I selected mechanical engineering because it’s more generic."
It turns out Sant’Anna was a perfect fit for Naranjo De Candido to explore her passions. An inspirational nuclear engineering course during her studies set her on the path toward studying the field as part of her master’s studies in Pisa. During her time there, she traveled around the world - to China as part of a student exchange program and to Switzerland and the United States for internships. "I formed a good background and curriculum and that allowed me to [gain admission] to MIT," she says.
At an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, she met an MIT mechanical engineering student who encouraged her to apply to the school for doctoral studies. Yet another mentor in the Italian nuclear sector had also suggested she apply to MIT to pursue nuclear engineering, so she decided to take the leap.
And she is glad she did.
Improving access to nuclear energy
At MIT, Naranjo De Candido is working on improving access to nuclear energy by scaling down reactor size and, in the case of microreactors, making them mobile enough to travel to places where they’re needed. "The idea with a microreactor is that when the fuel is exhausted, you replace the entire microreactor onsite with a freshly fueled unit and take the old one back to a central facility where it’s going to be refueled," she says. One of the early use cases for such microreactors has been remote mining sites which need reliable power 24/7.
Modular reactors, about 10 times the size of microreactors, ensure access differently: The components can be manufactured and installed at scale. These reactors don’t just deliver electricity but also cater to the market for industrial heat, she says. "You can locate them close to industrial facilities and use the heat directly to power ammonia or hydrogen production or water desalinization for example," she adds.
As more of these modular reactors are installed, the industry is expected to expand to include enterprises that choose to simply build them and hand off operations to other companies. Whereas traditional nuclear energy reactors might have a full suite of staff on board, smaller-scale reactors such as modular ones cannot afford to staff in large numbers, so talent needs to be optimized and staff shared among many units. "Many of these companies are very interested in knowing exactly how many people and how much money to allocate, and how to organize resources to serve more than one reactor at the same time," she says.
Naranjo De Candido is working on a complex software program that factors in a large range of variables - from raw materials cost and worker training, reactor size, megawatt output and more - and leans on historical data to predict what resources newer plants might need. The program also informs operators about the tradeoffs they need to accept. For example, she explains, "if you reduce people below the typical level assigned, how does that impact the reliability of the plant, that is, the number of hours that it is able to operate without malfunctions and failures?"
And managing and operating a nuclear reactor is particularly complex because safety standards limit how much time workers can work in certain areas and how safe zones need to be handled.
"There’s a shortage of [qualified talent] in the industry so this is not just about reducing costs but also about making it possible to have plants out there," Naranjo De Candido says. Different types of talent are needed, from professionals who specialize in mechanical components to electronic controls. The model that she is working on considers the need for such specialized skillsets as well as making room for cross-training talent in multiple fields as needed.
In keeping with her goal of making nuclear energy more accessible, the optimization software will be open-source, available for all to use. "We want this to be a common ground for utilities and vendors and other players to be able to communicate better," Naranjo De Candido says, Doing so will accelerate the operation of nuclear energy plants at scale, she hopes - an achievement that will come not a moment too soon.
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