In search of lost data

Nuclear engineering faculty member recreates missing data from watershed 1960s reactor experiments

Zeyun Wu, Ph.D.
Zeyun Wu, Ph.D.

In the 1960s, a set of landmark experiments in clean energy took place — but a whole class of data was never recorded.

Zeyun Wu, Ph.D., has received $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) to gather the lost data, which will help today's researchers and regulators better assess the performance of molten salt thermal nuclear reactors. 

Wu, an assistant professor in VCU’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, will develop methods to recreate data lost during the famous Molten Salt Reactor Experiments (MSRE) performed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1964-1969.

These game-changing experiments demonstrated that then-new molten-salt power reactors could be operated safely and maintained reliably. Results from the MSRE remain the only collection of experimental data for this class of advanced reactor concepts.

To deepen modern researchers’ understanding of molten salt reactor technologies, Wu will develop models to simulate data generated — but not recorded — during individual MSRE application sessions. These session-to-session data points are called transient data. Unlike static data, which describe how a system works over time, transient data give a more detailed account of a system’s performance fluctuations.

“Transient analysis is critical for reactor safety analysis. Nevertheless, there are currently no transient benchmark evaluations of molten salt reactors,” Wu said. His team will use advanced data assimilation methods such as machine-learning to regenerate undocumented data from the available experimental data. This will “provide innovative insights and offer superior advantages in reactor physics benchmark development,” he said.

“A transient MSRE benchmark will be a good complement to the existing MSRE static benchmark and will be a valuable reference to better validate models being built by research institutes and nuclear industries working in molten salt reactor development and deployment.”

Wu will submit the benchmark to the International Reactor Physics Experiment Evaluation Project Handbook, the most authoritative compilation of reactor physics benchmarks derived from experiments performed at nuclear facilities around the world.

This new benchmark is expected to spur development of new, better nuclear reactors to support clean energy. It will also help complete the picture of an historic set of experiments and safeguard related data from being lost. This will eliminate the need to reproduce the MSRE in full, which would incur an enormous and unnecessary cost.

Wu is the leading investigator of this project, with research collaborators from the University of California at Berkeley, the Argonne and Oak Ridge national laboratories and Flibe Energy. Wu's award is part of a $61 million investment from the DoE for nuclear research and development projects that advance carbon-free energy sources.