Making Nuclear Power Economical: Congress Passes Tax Benefits for New Nuclear

By: John Wagner

Previously untapped oil and natural gas reserves have revved up a fossil-fuel boom recently, as new drilling techniques and decreased regulation open up new parts of the world for mining. This fossil-fuel boom has pushed the prices of both natural gas and oil far below predicted levels, making fossil-fuel power plants more economical than those using renewable energy sources. In an attempt to make nuclear energy more competitive, congress recently extended the production tax credit for commercial nuclear reactors.

While this helps, the nuclear industry is still plagued with the exponential rise of power plant construction cost. In the past, the U.S.’s private sector competed with other forms of energy thanks to its fairly inexpensive operational costs. In 2011, research from The Institute for Energy estimated that operational cost for nuclear reactors was $0.02 per kilowatt hour, while natural-gas power plants sat at $0.045. While there isn’t a lot of U.S. data on the construction cost of new reactors, similar facilities in China cost about $2,440 per kilowatt hour, while newly constructed natural gas power plants run at a mere $700 per kilowatt hour.

The high upfront costs are a main reason private companies simply aren’t investing in nuclear. Congress hopes to reduce these costs by extending the production tax credit for nuclear power plants. This credit goes towards construction costs for nuclear power plants that will be on the grid after the end of 2020. These lowered taxes greatly reduce pressure on nuclear reactor construction projects and free up capital for unplanned expenses. The extension benefits several commercial reactors, particularly Vogtle reactors three and four, in addition to a proposed small modular reactor at the Idaho National Lab.

The extension of the production tax credit is critical for nuclear energy in the United States. It enables the U.S.’s power system to prepare for the inevitable increase of fossil fuel prices. Nuclear energy will continue to provide the United States with vast amounts of carbon free energy, and this production tax credit is a big step in the right direction.

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Keeping Up with the Heat: Accident Tolerant Fuel and Cladding

By: John Taylor

Almost seven years ago, disaster struck the nuclear industry when a tsunami severely damaged the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In the wake of the accident, the global nuclear industry sought more ways to improve reactor safety in emergency situations. To improve the resiliency of its nation’s own reactors, the U.S. Department of Energy currently supports Westinghouse and the GE subsidiary Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF) to develop accident tolerant fuels (ATF).

Accident tolerant fuels can withstand a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) for a significantly larger amount of time than standard fuel designs, while also preserving and advancing fuel performance under typical reactor conditions. The goal of these programs is to enhance reactor safety by improving cladding and fuel properties (physical, chemical, and thermal), as well as reducing the leakage of fission products into the coolant stream.

One ATF design is Westinghouse’s EnCore fuel, which replaces the traditional uranium oxide pellet with silicon-based materials. According to Westinghouse, their uranium silicide pellet has a thermal conductivity 550% higher than the traditional fuel pellet, meaning that it retains less heat when coolant is lost. The EnCore fuel also has a Uranium density 17% higher than that of the traditional UO2 fuel, meaning that a reactor can have a longer fuel cycle or reduced fuel loading. Another component of the EnCore ATF is the chromium-coated zirconium cladding that is used with the uranium silicide pellets.

Westinghouse claims that their EnCore cladding lives a longer life due to its reduced oxidation and hydrogen buildup under normal operating conditions, which also contributes to its ability to withstand extended exposure to high temperatures (1300-1400 degrees Celsius). These designs are currently undergoing irradiation in test reactors at Idaho National Laboratory, and Westinghouse intends to begin manufacturing lead test rods (LTRs) this year, with the intent of putting the first rods and assemblies in reactors by 2022.

Another company involved in developing ATF is Global Nuclear Fuel. They are working alongside Southern Nuclear and Exelon Generation to test their newest fuel design. The components they have developed include a new iron-chromium-aluminum cladding, IronClad, and a coated zirconium fuel cladding, ARMOR. The ARMOR coating is a material that can be applied to any zirconium cladding to increase its resilience to debris that manages to enter the core, and both IronClad and ARMOR provide better resistance to damage from oxidation than traditional cladding.

Both cladding advancements will be implemented at Georgia Power Company’s Plant Hatch during their refueling outage this spring. Global Nuclear Fuel plans to also implement their ATF cladding at Exelon Generation’s Clinton power station in 2019.

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Professor Files Lawsuit Against Academic Critic : Why You Should Care

By: Matthew Herald

In 2015, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson published a paper claiming the United States can transition to 100% renewable energy by the year 2050. This can be achieved, he argues, by increasing generation and storage of wind, water, and solar while simultaneously cutting coal, natural gas, and nuclear. At the time of publishing, the paper received little attention, but after receiving professional criticism Jacobson responded with an unorthodox defense: lawsuits.

After its original publishing the scholarly journal, Joule, Jacobson’s paper went largely unnoticed for nearly two years. In 2017, a group of researchers in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) noticed technical issues with the paper. Looming questions about how hydro and flexible load were modeled, the validity of the underlying assumptions supporting Jacobson’s arguments, and the the maturity of technologies he claimed were “deployable today” were unresolved. As more questions began to arise, they reached out to Jacobson for clarification. When they decided Jacobson’s explanations were unsatisfactory, they decided to make their findings public. Led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) researcher Christopher Clack, the group published an evaluation of Jacobson’s study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This was the first major criticism of Jacobson’s paper, and it brought the issues to a wider audience.

Their evaluation states, “we find [Jacobson’s] analysis involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions”. Clack further critiques Jacobson’s study, stating that “many previous studies of decarbonization of electric power illustrate the difficulty of complete decarbonization… this study’s shortcomings and errors render it an unreliable guide”.

Disputes in academia are usually welcomed. They provide opportunities for open debate and discussion that results in more precise science and stronger conclusions. However, instead of meeting criticism of his paper with a technical rebuttal or justification of his model’s assumptions, Jacobson sued his critics for $10 million for damages to his reputation and called for the removal of the PNAS paper. Instead of revisiting his assumptions in response to just criticism, Jacobson chose to use litigation as a means to silence his critics.

Defamation suits like this erode the foundation on which science exists, and regardless of who wins, both sides will incur significant legal costs. Both Clack and Jacobson must hire lawyers, pay legal fees, and lose a considerable amount of valuable research time defending themselves in court.

If the Jacobson suit is allowed to proceed, it opens the doors for others to use litigation as a means to combat valid academic criticisms, instead of refuting them scientifically or re-assessing their research. A future in which facts are determined by the scientist with the best lawyers should scare anyone who cares about science. Any further progression of Jacobson’s litigation sets a dangerous precedent for the integrity of scientific inquiry.


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The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review: What does it mean for international relations?

By Luke Seifert

The Trump administration recently released the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which lays out their plan for nuclear armament within the U.S. While past reviews were dedicated to reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the new policies focus on maintaining and modernizing our nuclear weapons. The report states that “It is now clear that the United States must have sufficient research, design, development, and production capacity to support the sustainment and replacement of its nuclear forces.”

There are multiple reasons for this dramatic shift in policy. One reason is that other countries continue to develop their nuclear weapons programs, even as the U.S. shrinks its own. As the latest NPR notes:

“U.S. efforts to reduce the roles and numbers of nuclear weapons, and convince other states to do the same, have included reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile by over 85 percent since its Cold War high. Potential adversaries, however, have expanded and modernized their nuclear forces.”

The future of international nuclear armament policy is uncertain. The Trump administration must beware of expanding nuclear forces in China, Russia, and North Korea. In addition, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities will end in 2031, which would allow Iran to begin expanding its nuclear forces as well. If the US is building up its own arsenal, it may embolden Iran to do the same once the JCPOA ends.

However, the Trump administration can’t just react to potential threats. The newest NPR will affect previous international agreements. Lisbeth Gronlund writes on The Union of Concerned Scientists blog that, “While claiming that the United States ‘continues to abide by its obligations’ under the NPT [Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons], the NPR ignores the US obligation to take effective measures toward nuclear disarmament.” Considering Dr. Gronlund’s point, maybe nuclear rearmament isn’t the best idea.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is in a difficult position. Taking into account the nuclear armaments of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, the NPR suggests that expanding nuclear capabilities is the best solution, because previous attempts to dissuade other countries from expanding their nuclear arsenals, which involved the U.S. reducing its stockpiles, have been unsuccessful. But this will likely cause diplomatic negotiations with other countries concerning nuclear reduction to become more difficult. What authority does the U.S. have to tell another country to reduce its nuclear arsenal, if it’s bolstering its own? On the other hand, if the U.S. continues shrinking its nuclear arsenal, we may become unable to properly deter other countries from utilizing nuclear weapons. It remains to be seen whether the policies proposed in the NPR are successful in navigating this complex dilemma.

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A New Home for the Nuclear Engineering Department

By Robert Corrigan

At the start of the spring semester, nuclear engineering students returned to a very different looking department from the previous term. Over winter break, the nuclear engineering (NE) department made its long-awaited move out of Pasqua Engineering into the former Earth & Planetary Sciences building, now temporarily dubbed the Engineering and Sciences Annex (ESA). I sat down with Dr. Wes Hines, Department Chair, to find out more about the big move and the highly anticipated, soon-to-be-constructed new home for UT’s nuclear engineering department.

“I think if you want to be a top 25, or a number one nuclear engineering department, that you want to have the best faculty, staff, students, and facilities, and our facilities are kind of embarrassing. We have students saying, ‘aww, let’s try and host the next ANS student conference next year,’ and I think, ahhh… let’s not. A. It’s a lot of work, and B. Our facilities are horrible, and I don’t want people to know how bad our facilities are! (Laughs) I mean, they’re O.K., but it’s not something you want to go brag about.”

Hosting the ANS student conference has been a hot topic for students involved in UTK’s ANS student chapter for a long time. According to the ANS student sections committee website, many rival institutions have hosted the conference twice or even three times (see Texas A&M), while UTK has never hosted the event. It is possible that the combination of a new building for NE and new facilities across campus–such as the new student union–will change this in the near future.

EDIT: (3/11/2018) The UTK NE department hosted the Eastern Regional ANS Student Conference in 1980. The meeting was held in Gatlinburg, TN. The student sections committee no longer holds regional conferences, and UTNE has never hosted the national student conference.

But the new building isn’t just for bragging rights. The department will be getting several state of the art facilities, for both research and instruction, including an accelerator-driven fast flux facility which Dr. Hines was particularly enthusiastic about. “If we have something like this fast flux facility,” he said, “there’s no place else in the United States that has that type of facility, so it’d give us some unique research opportunities that no one else will have.” Altogether, the new building will house 23 lab spaces, as well as offices for faculty, staff, and graduate students, not to mention a multitude of group collaboration spaces and conference rooms, weighing in at a whopping three times the overall space that was available to the department in Pasqua.

Further amenities include: shielded laboratories, an approach to criticality facility, a new and improved version of an existing natural circulation experiment, and a high bay to accommodate large projects. There are also plans to construct a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility)-capable laboratory, potentially allowing for researchers to work on classified projects without having to go to Oak Ridge. Several new teaching labs will be on the first floor, including a Neutronics lab for the NE 401 and 402 classes, a radiochemistry teaching lab, a power plant simulator classroom, and a 60 person lecture hall. There are also multiple smaller classrooms on the upper floors.

Maybe one of the most important additions to the new building, however, may be the inclusion of a POD market convenience store on the first floor. This has been a major concern for students for a long time, as there are currently no campus dining options on The Hill (where engineering students spend most of their day).

One of the things that the department has made sure to emphasize in the new building is the inclusion of collaboration spaces for students and researchers. The plans for the building incorporate small group spaces on every floor, from tiny five person video conferencing rooms to a brand new ANS reading room, all the way up to a massive executive conference room that seats about 30 people. Currently, students in the department, undergraduates in particular, make heavy use of the NE department lounge on the 6th floor of Ferris Hall, and hopefully the collaboration spaces in the new building can serve the same purpose.

In short, it’s out with the old and in with the new for the NE department, with a whole host of exciting changes on the way. Construction is still in the earliest stages, and in the coming months, the process of decommissioning and remediating asbestos in Estabrook and Pasqua will begin in preparation for demolition. The current target opening for the new facility is August 2021.

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Scientists Develop Diamond Battery that Runs on Radiation

By Devon Drey

In December of 2016, physicists and chemists at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute in the United Kingdom posted a press release introducing a next-generation nuclear battery, one that utilizes radiation to generate electricity. This new battery could provide a means for turning radioactive waste into electricity for small or lower power devices.

These batteries can be used as a simpler alternative to RTGs (radioactive thermoelectric generators), which convert heat generated by the radioactive decay of elements (like plutonium) into electricity by using thermocouples. Man-made diamond batteries produce electricity just by being close to a radioactive source. As radiation interacts with the diamond, it creates electron-hole pairs which allow for electric current flow.  “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.  By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy,” says Tom Scott, Professor of Materials at the Cabot Institute.

The first prototype utilized Ni-63 as the primary source of radiation, but current development aims at using C-14 to improve the efficiency of the battery and to utilize the 95,000 tons of spent graphite blocks generated to date by reactors in the United Kingdom. Researchers discovered that the C-14 mostly exists in the outer layer of the spent graphite blocks, enabling extraction of the C-14 by heating the blocks and gasifying the outer layers. Following gasification, the C-14 gas is compressed into diamonds and wrapped in a nonradioactive layer of C-12 diamond, containing the C-14 and its radiation.

One gram of C-14 diamond can produce 15 joules of energy per day with a 5700 year half-life, a 20 gram alkaline battery can produce up to 700 joules per day for its one day lifetime, and one gram of Pu-238 RTG can produce 2500 joules per day with a half-life of 87.7 years. Professor Scott added: “We envision these batteries to be used in situations where it is not feasible to charge or replace conventional batteries. Obvious applications would be in low-power electrical devices where long life of the energy source is needed, such as pacemakers, satellites, high-altitude drones or even spacecraft.” There are so many possible applications that the researchers created a twitter hashtag (#diamondbattery) where people can tweet them suggestions. To see more ideas suggested by everyday people, go to

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Nuclear Board Game Night

ANS is hosting a board game night Thursday, February 1st. Bring your favorite games and snacks to share in the Nuclear Lounge in Ferris Hall from 7-9 pm.

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Website Under Construction

In the coming weeks, we will be majorly overhauling the website in order to make it a more useful platform for our members to interact with. Any questions about the website can be directed to

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Oak Ridge ANS Dinner Meeting 1/16

The local professional society is holding a dinner meeting this coming Tuesday. See the flyer in this post for more details.

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OR/K ANS November Dinner Meeting

Interested in networking with local professionals in the nuclear industry? The Oak Ridge/ Knoxville section of ANS is holding a dinner meeting on campus Tuesday, November 14th at 5:30 in Room 106 of the Panhellenic Building. To sign up, use this eventbrite link. There are plenty of spots available for students, and it only costs $5 to participate.

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