updated 10/26/2007 6:00:32 PM ET 2007-10-26T22:00:32

Supercomputers here and on Long Island will simulate the workings of next-generation nuclear reactors that could use weapons-grade plutonium and nuclear waste for fuel.

Computers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Brookhaven National Laboratory will run virtual models of a reactor under a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Officials want to use the computers — which can perform trillions of operations per second — to test the reliability and safety of the reactor designs.

The computers will model a so-called sodium-cooled fast reactor, which would be able to use highly radioactive nuclear materials for fuel and would produce electricity more efficiently than current reactors. Proponents say the reactors also would provide a way to reduce the worldwide stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

"The idea is to design reactors that can use this material and that are safe," said Michael Podowski, a professor at RPI.

Herb Schultz, deep computing sales executive for IBM, said the company's Blue Gene computers at the two sites will be able to simulate the vastly complex reactor, down to modeling the flow of liquid around pipes and through valves.

"If you do this properly, you can avoid weak spots," Schultz said.

Researchers at Columbia University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook also will be involved in the three-year project.

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