Nuclear Energy Institute: Advanced Technology Fuels Potential Nuclear Industry Game Changer

April 6, 2017

The nuclear energy industry has long supported and implemented improvements in the nuclear fuel used in its reactor fleet. These improvements have traditionally been incremental.

Six months after the March 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan, the U.S. Senate gave the Department of Energy renewed funding for research into a project that already had been underway for some years. DOE's accident tolerant fuels research and development (R&D) project, conducted by its Advanced Fuels Campaign, seeks to develop nuclear fuels that can resist the generation of hydrogen and fuel melting that characterized the Fukushima accident. This is a leap forward in that it focuses on increasing the amount of time before operator action is needed in the event of a loss of cooling.

The Idaho National Laboratory's Advanced Test Reactor is one of the facilities that will be used to test and qualify advanced technology fuel concepts for use in U.S. commercial power reactors. [Photo: DOE]

Working with several partners from industry, the national laboratories and research universities, DOE plans to have prototype advanced technology fuel (ATF) ready for demonstration in U.S. commercial light water reactors by 2022. The industry sees enough promise in the program that it is pushing to introduce "lead test rods" or "lead test assemblies" made from these fuels in their reactors to gain vital operational data as early as next year.

"We're encouraged by the depth of support from the industry on the ATF initiative, and by its desire to move toward wider implementation," says Joe Grimes, chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute's ATF working group. Grimes also is the Tennessee Valley Authority's executive vice president, generation.

With 23 of the 99 nuclear reactors in the United States, Exelon Corp. operates the country's largest nuclear fleet. Scot Greenlee, Exelon Nuclear Generation's senior vice president of engineering and technical services, said at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's annual Regulatory Information Conference that the potential of advanced technology fuels to enhance reactor safety is a "profoundly game changing innovation" for the industry.

With their enhanced ability to withstand damage from loss-of-cooling events, these fuels could "effectively eliminate the possibility of Three Mile Island and Fukushima-type accidents at nuclear power plants," Greenlee said.

The results of the project to date have been so encouraging that the industry wants to advance DOE's schedule.

The first phase of DOE's R&D program concluded last September with the identification of three concepts for advanced fuels (including innovative fuel pellet and cladding materials) and three vendors (Areva, General Electric and Westinghouse). Another vendor, Lightbridge, also is developing an advanced fuel concept but is not using DOE research funding.

The project now is in its second phase, i.e., "development and qualification," which entails irradiation and qualification tests of fabricated fuel sections in research reactors, including the Advanced Test Reactor and the Transient Reactor Test Facility at the Idaho National Laboratory and the Halden research reactor in Norway. These reactors will be used to test the fuel in steady-state, transient and simulated accident conditions.

"Testing lead fuel assemblies is essential R&D for acquiring operational data on the performance of these fuels," NEI Senior Project Manager for Fuel Kristopher Cummings said.

Computer codes will be used to model fuel performance and the codes in turn will be validated against the test results. These results are necessary to support the loading of lead test assemblies into commercial power reactors, Cummings said. 

These codes and the results of the fuel testing program will go hand-in-hand with an approach to licensing that the advanced technology fuel vendors and their power plant customers will use to enable full implementation of these fuels.

Among the benefits of the industry effort to license advanced technology fuels is the development of a streamlined fuel licensing framework that also should benefit the next generation of advanced reactors, Cummings noted.

Accomplishing this entails engaging with the NRC early in the fuel qualification process to identify and resolve generic regulatory issues associated with advanced technology fuel development. This is essential to reduce the traditionally decade-long approval timeframes for new fuel designs.

The ATF program has the potential to enhance safety while allowing for more efficient, cost-effective operations, Cummings said.

"The ATF program is benefiting from the enthusiastic support it is receiving across the nuclear industry," said Bill McCaughey, acting director of DOE's office of advanced fuels technologies.

"The project is proceeding on track according to DOE's initial schedule. We're thrilled that the industry, the vendors and the NRC see a path to accelerate the schedule if they feel there is sufficient information to allow the [earlier] loading of lead test assemblies into commercial reactors, we're happy to see that happen," he added.

For more information:

Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI)

1776 I St NW
Washington, District of Columbia
United States, 20006-3708
Tel: 202-739-8000

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