Idaho National Laboratory (INL) scientists are working with Babcock and Wilcox Inc., General Atomics, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to establish standards and procedures for the manufacture of commercial-scale new uranium fuels.  The team has set a new world record with next-generation particle fuel (aka fuel pellets) for use in high temperature gas reactors (HTGRs).

INL's Uranium Fuel Pellet. Click image for more info.

INL's Uranium Fuel Pellet. Click image for more info.

The INL research group says the fuel experiment set the record for particle fuel by consuming approximately 19 percent of its low-enriched uranium — more than double the previous record set by similar experiments run by German scientists in the 1980s and more than three times that achieved by the currently used light water reactor (LWR) fuel.  Additionally, none of the fuel particles experienced failure since entering the extreme Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) neutron irradiation test environment of the in December 2006.

The results come from the Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) Fuel Program, initiated by the Department of Energy in 2002, using INL’s unique ATR in a nearly three-year experiment to subject more than 300,000 nuclear fuel particles to an intense neutron field and temperatures around 1,250 degrees Celsius.  The program’s purpose is to develop this particle fuel, produce experimental data that demonstrates to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the fuel is robust and safe, and re-establish a U.S. fuel manufacturing capability for high temperature gas reactors.

Dr. David Petti, Director of the Very High Temperature Reactor Technology Development Office at the U.S. Department of Energy’s INL says, “This level of performance is a major accomplishment.”  The overarching goal of the AGR Fuel Program is to qualify coated nuclear fuel particles for use in HTGRs such as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. Developing particle fuel capable of achieving very high burnup levels will also reduce the amount of used fuel that is generated by HTGRs.  The technology would make uranium yield three times more energy than current designs.

The purpose of the fuel program at INL is to develop this particle fuel, produce experimental data that demonstrates to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the fuel is robust and safe, and re-establish a U.S. fuel manufacturing capability for high temperature gas reactors.

Dr. Warren F. “Pete” Miller, assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy says, “An important part of our mission is the development and exploration of advanced nuclear science and technology. This achievement is an important step as we work to enable the next generation of reactors, decrease fossil fuel use in industrial applications, make fuel cycles more sustainable and reduce proliferation risks.”

It’s a relief to see the national labs, industry partners and the bureaucracy getting an increase in energy output from uranium and reducing the waste.  It’s also instructive to see what a thorium program would be subjected to as well.

Called AGR-1, the experiments and tests are the first of eight similar procedures that aim to confirm designs and fabrication processes and performance characteristics for such fuels. Future AGR fuel tests will include particle fuel produced on a prototypic industrial scale to further prove the irradiation performance of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant Program-specific fuel design. The 18-foot-long AGR-1 experiment was inserted in INL’s ATR core and allowed for each of six capsules containing the particle fuel specimens to be monitored and controlled separately. Inside the ATR core, the fuel specimens were subjected to neutron irradiation many times higher than what they would experience inside an HTGR or a current light water reactor, allowing INL researchers to gain irradiation performance data for nuclear fuel and materials in a shorter time. The team is monitoring the AGR fuel for a number of factors including the “burn-up,” which measures of the percent of uranium fuel that has undergone fission reactions.

While the experiment has now left the ATR, researchers still have more two more years of work to do before the AGR-1 test campaign will be finished. Post irradiation examination (PIE) will begin at INL and Oak Ridge facilities and allow scientists to examine the fuel up close so that the fuel and its layers of coatings can be evaluated for degradation patterns and other characteristics. Additionally, controlled higher temperature testing in furnaces is planned to determine the safety performance of the fuel under postulated accident conditions.

The Next Generation Nuclear Plant Program aims to use the high-temperature gas reactors to produce high-temperature process heat and hydrogen used by many industrial facilities in daily operations and to support the broader goal of developing the next generation of nuclear power systems for providing abundant carbon-free electricity on a 24/7 basis. The excellent fuel irradiation performance must be demonstrated before high-temperature gas reactors can be licensed and co-located with these complementary industrial facilities. Reaching the world record peak burnup of 19 percent without any particle failure demonstrates the robustness of this particular particle fuel design.

One fuel down, seven others to try.  This is taking way too long.


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