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Systems Approach to Nuclear Energy

By Dedra Nevill

Taking a holistic view to help shape the next-generation nuclear power plant

To improve car performance, you need to examine how all the parts work together. That same holistic system approach is how nuclear engineer Pavel Tsvetkov is helping to shape the next-generation nuclear power plant.

By looking at the entire reactor system and developing predictive simulation models, engineers like Tsvetkov can find ways to upgrade existing power plants and to design more affordable and safer future nuclear power plants.

"As a researcher, I love the excitement of scientific discovery and engineering development. The focus on integration and systems allows us to advance the current state of nuclear energy systems designs."

Tsvetkov focuses his research efforts on developing system methods for predictive simulations of complex engineered systems. This integrated systems approach, or "system thinking," is the key approach in science-based efforts toward sustainable nuclear energy.

Tsvetkov says he believes the integrated systems method is the foundation of a truly robust design development approach that is necessary to upgrade existing power plants. This approach also will help in designing future nuclear power plants to withstand catastrophic environmental phenomena (such as the recent tsunami that devastated the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan) and serve as unlimited energy sources without harming the environment.

"As a researcher, I love the excitement of scientific discovery and engineering development," Tsvetkov says. "The focus on integration and systems allows us to advance the current state of nuclear energy systems designs."

The value of looking at the entire reactor system is to develop consistencies between all the components of the energy system. His research explores the multidisciplinary aspects of a nuclear energy system, including fuel cycles, energy generation equipment, safety components and nuclear waste.

To do this, Tsvetkov's research includes a combination of computational simulations and laboratory experiments that incorporate a variety of nuclear engineering disciplines.

"By simulating system behavior, we are able to look at the system design aspects rather than limiting ourselves within components of the nuclear reactor," Tsvetkov says. "It gives a clearer picture of how each component of the system will interact with each other, playing in concert as a system."

"We want to improve the quality of our life and make sure that our children have a secure and prosperous future."

One aspect that Tsvetkov is looking at is small-scale nuclear power, or small modular reactors (SMRs), which are a part of a new generation of nuclear reactors and are defined by their size, electric output capacities and inherently robust safety systems. SMRs also require little maintenance.

SMRs (as well as the newest generations of nuclear reactors, Generation III+ and Generation IV) include inherent safety features intended to avoid a disaster such as what happened in Japan. These small reactors are designed so that a distributed network of them could be built instead of one large 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor. Theoretically, the network would be much less susceptible to damage from natural disasters or accidents. In fact, interest in SMRs has grown since Japan's Fukushima incident.

Hybrid applications and roles of these SMRs require evaluations and development of methods not only for reactors but also for power modules, plants and mixed systems that make up both large power units and SMRs, as well as dedicated systems for waste management in various fuel cycle scenarios.

"Of course, innovative SMRs being near-term systems does not preclude but instead facilitates our interests in advanced energy systems that go far beyond our current and tomorrow needs," Tsvetkov says. "We are active in our quest for efficient direct energy conversion systems for terrestrial and space applications, as well as various advanced hybrid systems for power and waste management, including combinations of fission and external neutron sources such as fusion and accelerators."

Although nuclear energy currently generates 14 percent of the world's electricity, the World Nuclear Association says demand is increasing twice as fast as overall energy use and is likely to rise 76 percent by 2030. Technological advancements paired with ongoing research such as Tsvetkov's will continue to advance nuclear energy's place as part of solving the world's energy needs.

"We want to improve the quality of our life and make sure that our children have a secure and prosperous future," Tsvetkov says.

Dr. Pavel V. Tsvetkov
Dr. Pavel V. Tsvetkov
Associate Professor
Nuclear Engineering
979.845.7078