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Juliana Pacheco Duarte with undergrads Briunna Smith and Aria Murphy in the lab
August 4, 2023

Among nation’s elite, Duarte eyes machine learning to improve nuclear safety

Written By: Adam Malecek

Juliana Pacheco Duarte, an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at UW-Madison, has received a U.S. Department of Energy distinguished early career program award.

Juliana Pacheco Duarte
Juliana Pacheco Duarte

Duarte is one of only five faculty in the United States to receive the award in 2023. The program invests in the innovative research and education programs of outstanding early-career university faculty poised to pave new lines of inquiry and advance mission-critical research directions in nuclear energy. Duarte’s award is for $625,000 over five years.

With this award, Duarte will conduct experiments and harness machine learning techniques to answer crucial questions about transient critical heat flux in light water reactors.

“Critical heat flux is a phenomenon that is very important to understand for the thermal design and safety of nuclear reactors that are cooled by water,” Duarte says. “We’re trying to better understand these transient scenarios where there’s a very fast power increase in the reactor.”

There’s a lack of reliable experimental data about this transient heat transfer phenomenon in reactors, causing uncertainty in the computational models used for reactor safety analysis. In this research project, Duarte will help fill that data gap using an experimental setup in her lab. She is using optical fibers to measure the temperature in a nuclear fuel rod simulator at prototypical light water reactor conditions. Duarte will conduct experiments using different cladding materials and under various transient scenarios.

“We will be getting unique, very high-resolution data with these experiments,” Duarte says. “While previously there have been many experiments conducted at lower pressures that show these phenomena change with different cladding materials, I will be one of the first researchers performing these kinds of experiments at high pressure and at reactor conditions. With this unique data, I will use machine learning to improve the models that are used for safety analysis of nuclear reactors.”

In addition, Duarte seeks to better understand how different nuclear fuels, including new accident-tolerant fuels, affect transient critical heat flux and post-critical heat flux. Her findings should be very useful for aiding the regulatory licensing process that’s needed for upgrading existing nuclear plants to use accident-tolerant fuels.

With this award, Duarte is also working to build more inclusive learning environments in class and in the lab for both undergraduate and graduate students in nuclear science, technology and engineering, with an emphasis on thermal-hydraulics and reactor safety analysis. She will develop active learning-based educational materials for her NE 411: Nuclear Reactor Engineering course.

Featured image caption: Assistant Professor Juliana Pacheco Duarte (right) discusses her experimental setup for the DOE distinguished early career award project with undergraduates Briunna Smith (left) and Aria Murphy (center), both members of Duarte’s Heat Transfer and Safety Analysis Laboratory at UW-Madison. Credit: Joel Hallberg.