Boise State University

Idaho universities’ research collaboration builds strong, necessary partnerships

Researchers from the University of Idaho, Boise State University and Sakae Casting receiving a collaborative IGEM grant for nuclear fuel storage.
Researchers from the University of Idaho, Boise State University and Sakae Casting receiving a collaborative IGEM grant for nuclear fuel storage. Boise State University

While it may be exciting to play up university rivalries for the benefit of alumni and sports fans, when it comes to research, the opposite is true – the success of a research project often depends on experts from a number of different disciplines coming together to solve a problem.

For example, a team of researchers from the University of Idaho, Boise State University, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Sakae Casting recently were awarded a two-year Idaho Department of Commerce Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) grant to design a new, safer and more efficient method for cooling and storing the spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors. To understand how revolutionary this collaborative project could be, it helps to first understand a bit about nuclear reactors.

There are more than 450 nuclear power plants safely operating all over the world, and each of these plants must replace its fuel supply every three years and safely store the spent nuclear fuel, which allows the material to lessen its head load before transferring to permanent storage. Currently, spent fuel is stored in pools of water for 10-20 years before safely being sealed in concrete storage casks. Monitoring the water levels and ensuring a readily available water supply in the pools during this time is extremely critical. Indeed, it was a loss of cooling water in these ponds during the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan that led to radioactive release and compromised fuel at the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

The IGEM team, led by researchers from U of I’s Nuclear Engineering Program, could potentially revolutionize this nuclear fuel storage process. The team proposed designing and fabricating borated aluminum casks that could safely store and cool spent fuel while substantially reducing the amount of water required and providing a smaller footprint for storage.

This ambitious project is possible only because of the collaborators involved; each is a leader in their area of expertise but none could have undertaken this project alone.

Sakae Casting is a Japan-based company that has recently opened an office in Idaho Falls and is looking to build strong partnerships (and provide good jobs) in our state. The company is seeking to enter the nuclear industry and approached University of Idaho researchers with a novel new cooling technology and a question: Could this be put to use in the nuclear industry?

Researchers from U of I answered with a resounding yes. They sketched a draft of what a nuclear fuel cask could look like, using this new cooling technology, and are now seeking to gain valuable computational and engineering expertise as they fully model their design, which includes quantifying and validating the amount of radiation released by the spent fuel and the neutron flux to design the cask accordingly.

Researchers from Boise State’s Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering were brought to the project to develop and optimize the fabrication methods of materials needed for the cask – which must meet the unique requirements of safely holding hot, spent nuclear fuel. This project is an exciting undertaking for our researchers because it presents new challenges to materials science and engineering design, as well unique training opportunities for our future workforce, particularly with the nuclear energy sector.

Finally, the cask design work itself will be done at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, which is a research consortium among the Idaho research universities, University of Wyoming and INL. In addition, the laboratory will ensure that the IGEM team is best equipped to have a design that will fall within the requirements imposed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so it can be deployed as a usable product in the nuclear industry.

Heralding stories of collaboration is admittedly not as dramatic or popular as rehashing historic rivalries, but projects like these benefit all and prove that collaboration should be celebrated – and in Idaho, we are fortunate that these collaborations are more than plentiful.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices.