There are a number of applications in nuclear energy and hazardous waste disposal that require monitoring of fluids under extreme environments, including high levels of temperature, pressure, toxicity and radioactivity. Many of these applications will benefit from a monitoring technique that is external and non-invasive. Currently the sensors used are invasive, must reside inside the pressurized vessels and must penetrate the vessel walls, which can create a weakness in the vessel. Additionally, instruments that are used inside such containers must be exceptionally hardened to the environment. Information Systems Laboratories (ISL) has developed an external mass (gravimetric) measuring technique for monitoring nuclear coolant in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which will also work for measuring fluid levels in waste tanks, that avoids the problems inherent in invasive sensors. It utilizes a COTS gravitational sensor of unprecedented accuracy, leveraged via proper sensor placement geometry, to detect fluid changes of small amplitude from an outside position, obviating the need to penetrate the vessel. The technique is called Gravisense™.
ISL has proven via simulation and experiment that this concept can be usefully applied to monitoring fluid levels in both nuclear reactors and large waste tanks. Numerical simulation algorithms were developed to calculate the gravity effect of small changes in water level, which were verified by experiments at the NIST Physical Simulator facility at the Oregon State University. The measured ultra-low noise levels of the superconducting gravimeter type which utilizes a Niobium sphere suspended in a magnetic field to attain its phenomenal accuracy, demonstrated that fluid levels in SMRs can be measured at least to within 3 cm. Furthermore, the method can distinguish between a contained leak (from reactor to containment vessel) from an external leak (from reactor to outside of containment).
Additionally, simulations of waste canisters that hold spent fuel rods show that the fluid level measuring accuracy can potentially do better than 1 cm accuracy by measuring from below the vessel, and judicious placement of sensors on top of large waste tanks can potentially achieve a very impressive 2 mm measurement accuracy.
These encouraging results prove that the Gravisense™ technique for fluid determination can be very useful in nuclear energy generation, testing, and research, as well as in waste monitoring situations that are difficult to monitor via traditional sensing technology. We believe that the next step should be to test the technique on canisters of the type that are currently storing waste in various DOE locations.