Supercomputer Jockeys Line Up to Save Nuclear Power

Last Updated May 19, 2010 11:04 AM EDT

Nuclear power is the ugly cousin of renewable energy: it's expensive, many designs are untested, and safety concerns (even if generally overhyped) persist. But nuclear power, born at the beginning of the computer age, could receive a much-needed upgrade from modern processing power.

Scientists working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have secured eight million processor hours on the world's fastest supercomputer: the Jaguar, a 224,256 core computer that is also located on the 10,000 acre ORNL campus. With Jaguar, the researchers hope they can make new breakthroughs and prove old ideas that have never received much real-world attention.

In the past, nuclear power research has centered around the laborious task of designing the reactor unit. Costs and the potential for mistakes go up significantly when the rest of the power plant is designed and built. But Jaguar is powerful enough to model an entire power plant. An ORNL scientist talked to e! Science News about their plan:

"Traditionally, reactor models for radiation dose assessments have considered just the reactor core, or a small part of the core," Wagner says. "However, we're now simulating entire nuclear facilities, such as a nuclear power reactor facility with its auxiliary buildings and the ITER fusion reactor, with much greater accuracy than any other organization that we're aware of." ... The technology that makes this sort of leading-edge simulation possible is a combination of ORNL's Jaguar, the world's fastest supercomputer; advanced transport methods; and a next-generation software package called Denovo.

"At first we tried adapting older software to the task, but we abandoned that idea pretty quickly," says NSTD scientist and Denovo creator Tom Evans... Evans observes that, in some ways, Denovo is a synthesis of the last decade of research in the field. "Software for modeling radiation transport has been around for a long time," he says, "but it hadn't been adapted to build on developments that have revolutionized computational science."

ORNL isn't the only group tapping into supercomputing power. Intellectual Ventures, a well-known technology incubator, owns a company called TerraPower that has its own computing cluster to model nuclear energy -- a significantly different design called a traveling wave nuclear reactor.

TerraPower is backed not only by some rather brilliant scientists, but also by Bill Gates, who gave a much-noted talk at the TED innovation conference in which he referred to the technology as an "energy miracle". According to Gates, TerraPower's designs could eventually power much of the world. That's a big claim, but we've also never been able to use such powerful supercomputers before.

For the utility industry, all the supercomputing attention being turned on nuclear power offers a glimpse into a potential future for their business.

Provided we don't continue using coal and gas for the majority of our energy needs, and there are no major breakthroughs in renewables or a research field like nuclear fusion, nuclear power (fission) may be the direction that we have to turn. For now, there are few utilities willing to try their hand at nuclear; but with a few well-placed breakthroughs, nuclear power could be in for a renaissance.