Lightbridge charts progress towards irradiation testing

14 January 2016

UPDATED: This story has been updated to include comments from a business update held by Lightbridge on 14 January. 

Lightbridge Corporation has received final regulatory approval for irradiation testing of its metallic fuel at Norway's Halden research reactor. The company has also entered an agreement with US fabricator BWXT Nuclear Energy to evaluate the possible fabrication of fuel samples at BWXT's US facilities.

Reston, Virginia-based Lightbridge announced on 12 January that the operator of the Halden reactor, the Institute for Energy Technology (IFE), had received approval from the Norwegian Nuclear Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA) for all planned irradiation of Lightbridge fuel, which is expected to begin in 2017.

The NRPA issued its approval following the submission of a safety report by IFE on the irradiation testing of the fuel and the approval of an export licence by Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Lightbridge's advanced metallic fuel is made from a zirconium-uranium (Zr-U) alloy and uses a unique composition and fuel rod geometry, which, the company says, enables it to operate at a higher power density than uranium oxide fuels in use today. The NRPA noted the safety advantages of the fuel, including its thermal conductivity and the reduced likelihood for a release of fission products in the event of a cladding breach, Lightbridge said.

The company signed an agreement with IFE in July 2015 covering irradiation testing of fuel samples under prototypic commercial reactor operating conditions. Post-irradiation examination of the fuel samples is to be carried out in Sweden by Studsvik.

Lightbridge CEO Seth Grae said that the company was confident that it would remain on schedule to begin the demonstration of the fuel under commercial power reactor operating conditions in the Halden reactor in 2017. "We will then conduct post irradiation examination and have independent confirmation of the results. This data will be shared with utilities and our fuel fabrication partner(s) to support license applications with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and/or nuclear regulators in other countries for use of the Lightbridge-designed metallic fuel in commercial reactors," he said.

In a separate announcement, the company said that it had entered into an initial services agreement with BWXT Technologies subsidiary BWXT Nuclear Energy to evaluate the ability to fabricate and prepare a preliminary plan for the fabrication of Lightbridge-designed partial length nuclear fuel samples at BWXT's facilities in the USA. On completion of the plan - expected early in the second quarter of 2016 - Lightbridge said that the parties intend to explore expanding their collaboration to support the development and demonstration of manufacturing processes for Lightbridge-designed metallic fuel applicable to production of irradiation fuel samples, and fabrication of fuel samples for the IFE irradiation testing.

Lightbridge Chief Nuclear Fuel Development Officer Jim Malone said that BWXT's long experience in fabricating naval and research reactor fuel had been a very important consideration in involving them in the development process for Lightbridge's metallic fuel. At a business update held by the company on 14 January, he cited BWXT's experience with metallic fuel enriched to greater than 5% uranium-235.

Lightbridge has previously signed agreements covering the fabrication of test samples of the fuel at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories' (CNL) Chalk River facilities. An initial cooperation agreement signed in 2014, followed by an enabling agreement signed in October 2015, foresaw fabrication and characterization of prototype fuel test samples using depleted uranium in early 2016, followed by fabrication in late 2016 of irradiation fuel test samples using low enriched uranium.

Grae said that the agreement with BWXT provided "an additional option for manufacturing our fuel samples for irradiation testing in Norway, adding fuel fabrication redundancy to ensure that we will meet all our timelines."He told investors that having more than one supplier for the fuel samples for the Norwegian testing program gave the company further confidence in their development schedule.

The USA is seen as the most likely first commercial market for the fuel, and its approval by the NRC will be crucial. Results from the test irradiation in the Halden reactor will show that the fuel's performance can be accurately predicted and will be used to support a regulatory review by the NRC. The next step towards full commercial use will be the introduction of full-sized lead test assemblies into a commercial reactor, which the company anticipates will take place around 2020-2021. Malone said that deployment in other countries would likely follow, noting opportunities in Europe and China.

Looking forward to commercial-scale fabrication, Grae said that negotiations on a joint development agreement with Areva remain on track for completion by the end of February.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News