May 2008

Nuclear fuel experiments show promise

Nuclear energy continues to generate headlines as an energy source for the future; however, roadblocks hinder developers getting new reactors up and running.

By using reverse engineering, one of the roadblocks on nuclear fuel performance may soon disappear.

Reverse engineering methods helped turn fuel test failures from the early 1990s into a success this year, said David Petti, Sc.D., technical director for U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory (INL), which collaborated on the project with three other science and engineering organizations.

"We wanted to close this loop for the high-temperature gas reactor fuels community," he said. "We wanted to put more science into the tests and take the process and demonstrate its success."

The research helps support reactor licensing and operation for high-temperature reactors such as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant and similar reactors envisioned for subsequent commercial energy production.

"This is a major accomplishment in demonstrating TRISO fuel safety," said Greg Gibbs, Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project director. Tristructural-isotropic (TRISO) fuel is a type of micro fuel particle. "This brings us one step closer to licensing a commercially-capable, high-temperature gas reactor

that will be essentially emission free, help curb the rising cost of energy, and help to achieve energy security for our country."

The 40-person team from INL, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, General Atomics, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory now set its sights on reaching its next major milestone-a 12-14% burn up-expected later this calendar year.

After U.S. coated-particle fuel performance difficulties in the 1990s and a shift in national priorities, research on this type of fuel ended for a time. Funding for the research resumed in 2003 as part of the Department of Energy Advanced Gas Reactor fuel development and qualification program.