Behind the Scenes with Drs. Rachel Slaybaugh and JC Zhao

August 16, 2017

Safe, Secure, and Affordable: Redesigning Nuclear Power
Behind the Scenes with Drs. Rachel Slaybaugh and JC Zhao
Drs. Slaybaugh and Zhao discuss their backgrounds, why they came to ARPA-E, and how novel plant designs could transform nuclear power for the 21st century.

Rachel and JC Summit 2017

Dr. Rachel Slaybauch and Dr. JC Zhao at the 2017 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit

1. Tell us a little about your backgrounds. How does your previous experience provide insight into your work at ARPA-E?

Rachel: I’ve been working in nuclear engineering for almost 15 years. I’m currently splitting my time between ARPA-E and UC Berkeley, where I’m a nuclear engineering professor and oversee a lab that develops and studies design methods for nuclear systems. Before Berkeley, I was an engineer at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, where I got to see what it takes to develop the software used to build nuclear reactors. I also focus on high-performance computing methods, an interest that started while I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory for my Ph.D. I think bringing a modeling and simulation perspective to ARPA-E is valuable because technology development is increasingly driven by simulation.

I also founded and run the Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp, which brings students from around the world together to learn about entrepreneurship, finance and marketing, nuclear technology, and communication. Starting this program is what really helped me understand the broader impacts and motivations of technology development.

JC: I grew up in China and came to the United States in 1991 for a Ph.D. program in materials science and engineering at Lehigh University. After graduation, I worked for more than a decade at GE Global Research. At GE, I was the co-inventor of 48 U.S. patents, including an alloy that is now widely used in electricity-generation gas turbines. In 2008, I entered academia, becoming a professor at The Ohio State University because I felt it would be more impactful to teach students what I learned at GE. In January 2014, I became an ARPA-E Program Director. My experience at GE taught me how to successfully generate ideas, turn a concept into products, and build and manage interdisciplinary teams, all of which are extremely helpful in my current role at ARPA-E.

Rachel headshot


2. Why did you decide to come to ARPA-E?

Rachel: I decided to come to ARPA-E because it’s a unique opportunity to be able to change the trajectory of energy technologies. APRA-E brings new ideas to the forefront and brings together new communities to think differently about old problems. For nuclear energy in particular, this is extremely exciting.

JC: I first started thinking about joining ARPA-E back in 2013 after two friends encouraged me to check it out. The opportunity to launch multi-million-dollar programs that could potentially transform energy technologies was alluring. What attracted me most about the role was the ability to develop and pitch new ideas for programs and then to fund the best interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers to achieve the program’s objectives for energy impact.

3. ARPA-E recently released a Teaming Partner List on Designs for Advanced Modular Nuclear Reactors—why is ARPA-E potentially interested in this technology area? 

At ARPA-E, we’re interested in advanced nuclear reactor designs that can provide ultra-safe, secure, and reliable baseload electricity at significantly lower costs than feasible with today’s advanced reactors. While new light water reactors (LWRs) with optimized control and passive safety systems are commercially available, escalating capital costs and unpredictable construction schedules have effectively stalled their deployment. This slow growth, combined with the expected retirement of some nuclear reactors, could lead to a 20 GW reduction in nuclear electricity capacity by 2050. Nuclear power is efficient, safe, clean, and domestically produced. If it’s going to play a significant role in America’s energy future, then our scientists and engineers will need to rethink nuclear power from the ground up, developing novel plant designs with a system-level approach. 

4. What gaps currently exist in this technology and what are some areas for advancement? 

For nuclear power to be competitive, innovators must find a way to achieve maximum safety and security, drive down cost, and enable rapid construction. There are real opportunities to improve our approach to plant safety. Current LWRs rely on a defense-in-depth strategy, constructing layers of safety features to counter various accident scenarios. A switch to a safety-through-design strategy, whereby “walkaway” safety is achieved in the reactor design itself, could increase the amount of time before human intervention or backup power is required in an accident. To address high costs, we need to rethink how a nuclear plant is built and streamline the construction process. For example, moving construction from the field to made-to-order factories would cut complexity and allow safety tests to be run on the reactor core module in various extremes, like seismic shaking or system flooding. Compared to other power plants, LWRs are also more expensive to operate and maintain. These costs are already driving some utilities to shut down plants before their licensed operational lifetimes expire. To solve this challenge and rein in costs, we’ll need to leverage robotics and sophisticated sensor technologies to develop substantially more autonomous reactors.

5. Where would these solutions fit into a broader or longer term solution? 

If the United States succeeds in developing the next generation of advanced nuclear power plants, the siting flexibility of such plants will be dramatically improved. With the option to deploy plants, large or small, in far more places, nuclear power could continue to be a critical part of the American energy portfolio. In addition, the creation of more autonomous reactors could transform the current international market for nuclear reactors and enable the United States to be a leading exporter of this technology. Finally, if new system designs make nuclear power easier to build, less expensive, and more portable, we could even use these small reactors to provide reliable power to communities in emergencies.

To learn more about ARPA E’s exploration of this technical area, check out the teaming partner list.  

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