Framatome 'ideal partner', says Lightbridge CEO

05 February 2018

Framatome is the best partner for Lightbridge for developing, licensing and commercialising nuclear fuel assemblies based on its technology, the company's president and CEO Seth Grae told World Nuclear News. Speaking shortly after the companies announced their Enfission joint venture, he said they intend Enfission to become a major player in the international nuclear industry.

The Enfission joint venture was launched on 25 January following the signing last September of a binding agreement between Areva and Lightbridge. Framatome was formed recently from the spin-off of Areva Group's nuclear reactor operations and is owned by the EDF Group (75.5%), Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (19.5%) and Assystem (5%).

"In many ways I view Framatome as the ideal partner," Grae said last week. "We did speak with all of their competitors. We did decide that the company now called Framatome was our first choice to be our partner and we were very happy that initially everything progressed well enough that it was clear that they could be, and we went forward only with them.

"Some of their competitors were definitely willing to go forward, but it's more in Framatome's DNA that they're entrepreneurial, that they like new technology," Grae said. "They started as a licensee of technology. They've always been open both to developing their own technology and taking technology from others, partnering with others, and enhancing it."

Intellectual property

Lightbridge announced last week it has been awarded key patents in both Europe and China related to its metallic fuel design. The patents - valid until 2034 - follow notices of allowances that were issued last year by the European Patent Office and China's State Intellectual Property Office.

The patents cover an alternative embodiment of a multi-lobe fuel rod design; an all-metal pressurised water reactor (PWR) fuel assembly design incorporating multi-lobe fuel rods based in the alternative embodiment; and an all-metal PWR fuel assembly design incorporating multi-lobe fuel rods arranged into a mixed grid pattern; thereby covering the all-metal fuel assembly design after the most recent optimisation.

In addition, Lightbridge has received a notice of allowance in China related to the manufacturing process for its fuel rods and covers a co-extrusion manufacturing method for the multi-lobe metallic fuel rods via the casting route.

Grae said, "These latest patents are a critical step in solidifying our intellectual protection around the world as we gear up for commercialisation through Enfission."

Referring to Areva's work with Belgium's Belgonucleaire to develop the MIMAS process for fabricating mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, Grae said: "That's a very good model for what we are doing and Framatome really is the only company in the world that has done something like that. Everyone else has only ever used the same uranium dioxide fuel - with slight tweaks - as existed at the beginning of the industry."

He said Enfission will complete the commercial design of the Lightbridge fuel.

"Framatome brings massive capacity to that effort that Lightbridge does not have in terms of decades of intellectual property development and operating experience on the chemistry of fuel and reactors."

Lightbridge's fuel is made from a zirconium-uranium alloy and uses a unique composition and fuel rod geometry, which the company says offers improvements to the economics, efficiency and safety of existing and new nuclear power plants.

The first lead test rod of the Lightbridge fuel is expected to be loaded into a US reactor around 2021, Grae said.

"We believe we know which reactor that is," he noted. Enfission anticipates having a letter of intent for lead test assemblies by 2023, with the loading of a partial or full core of assemblies by 2026.

Grae said that under the joint venture agreement, manufacturing will initially be contracted by Lightbridge to Framatome in the USA, but Enfission will sell the fuel.

"Initially there would be a pilot-scale fuel fabrication facility - most likely co-located with existing Framatome facilities in the US - and then a commercial-scale fuel fabrication facility could be an expansion of that initial line or it could be greenfield, it could be something new," he said. "Most likely it will be an existing Framatome site in Washington State but that decision is not made yet.

Lightbridge plans to conduct full irradiation testing of fabricated fuel samples under commercial reactor operating conditions in a pressurised water loop at the Halden reactor in Norway. However, it is also considering doing some irradiation testing at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in the USA. The Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) at INL was restarted in November after being offline for 23 years.

"All of a sudden the USA can do transient testing at the TREAT reactor - in effect severe accident testing, where you can mimic Fukushima-, Chernobyl- or Three Mile Island-type conditions and see how the fuel does," Grae said. "We very much want to do that."

"We believe our fuel will come through with flying colours and we have reasons we believe that. Very strong reasons," he said. "So we are very serious about testing it under those conditions."

Grae is confident that a market exists for its fuel design.

"Having a product that significantly improves the economics and safety of existing or new build reactors is something utilities are very interested in," he said. "If there are some more entrepreneurial American utilities that are willing to be first and demonstrate this in their plants, then it's a lot easier to enter those markets."

However, he acknowledged there are some markets the company simply cannot reach at the current time because, "for their own reasons", they might not base such decisions on purely commercial considerations.

"I think in the end we will reach them, either through exporting and building new production facilities in some countries, and eventually perhaps licensing to, or partnering with, entities in other countries."

Lightbridge fuel has significant safety advantages, particularly in design basis loss-of-coolant accidents, Grae said. On its economic benefits, he said: "In the cost per unit of electricity generated, this is a significantly lower-cost fuel. If you look at just the cost of buying the fuel itself, it costs more because there is more uranium enrichment in the fuel, and uranium enrichment cost money. So, in a sense, per fuel rod you pay more but the fuel rods last longer and every day they are in the reactor they generate more electricity. It's a significant economic benefit that this fuel brings to [utilities'] reactors, unlike anything the industry has ever seen."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News