Commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. must continue to operate safely, reliably, and economically throughout their lifetimes. PNNL helps meet these objectives through expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, materials science, chemistry, instrumentation and control, risk assessment, environmental science, social science, physical security, and cybersecurity. This work is supported by the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), commercial sponsors, and partner national laboratories.
Detecting and withstanding materials degradation
Materials scientists at PNNL investigate how materials degrade, helping assure that the life of existing reactors can be extended safely and that new materials can be deployed in advanced reactors. PNNL has the world's leading researchers in the science of stress corrosion and crack initiation and growth. They use test rigs to collect material property and degradation data needed to develop degradation models and strategies for detection and intervention. PNNL also stewards state-of-the-art post-irradiation examination to understand how components and materials used in reactors degrade and/or fail.
With industry partners, PNNL investigates aging electrical cables and develops radiation-tolerant materials for the next generation of advanced reactors. Our experts have been working with the NRC since 1977 to resolve emerging challenges and proactively conduct non-destructive evaluation material characterization for the nuclear energy industry.
Central to this research are PNNL’s Radiochemical Processing Laboratory, a Hazard Category 2 non-reactor facility for advancing radiological material processes and solutions; the Materials Science and Technology Building; the Non-Destructive Evaluation Laboratory; and the Radiological Exposure and Metrology Calibration and Standards Laboratory.
Probabilistic risk assessment
PNNL nuclear experts conduct risk assessments and safety analyses that underpin the limiting conditions for safe reactor operations, administrative programs, and controls. These experts emphasize decision science, probabilistic risk assessments (PRAs), and systematic analyses that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the design, construction, operation, and siting of nuclear plants.
PNNL PRA methods have been applied to risk-informed reactor design, to extending NRC’s significance determination process regarding passive components, to reviewing risk-informed license amendment applications to NRC, to the storage and transportation of spent nuclear fuel, and to assessments of external plant hazards, such as flooding and earthquakes.
PNNL staff have expertise in cybersecurity and nuclear power plant operations, including policy development, new technologies, assessments and inspections, and capacity development. PNNL has planned and supported NRC cybersecurity inspections of all licensed facilities. For the IAEA, researchers have developed and delivered training on the security of industrial control systems, radiological materials facilities, and other topics. PNNL researchers also worked with the NRC and IAEA to develop policy and guidance on cybersecurity program inspections, incident response, and other issues.
In addition, our award-winning Physical and Cyber Risk Analysis Tool (PACRAT) software helps nuclear plant personnel assess risks of coordinated cyber and physical attacks.