USNC eyes summer start-up for Oak Ridge fuel plant

03 March 2022

Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) plans to begin operations later this year at its Pilot Fuel Manufacturing (PFM) facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, subject to regulatory approvals. The facility will process feedstock uranium powder into TRISO fuel particles and subsequently produce the company's proprietary FCM fuel in multiple kilogram quantities.

(Image: USNC)

FCM - standing for Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated - fuel incorporates TRISO (uranium oxycarbide tristructural isotropic) fuel particles encased in a silicon carbide matrix, a combination which the company says provides an extremely rugged and stable fuel with extraordinary high temperature stability. It will be used in USNC's Micro Modular Reactor (MMR), a 15 MW thermal, 5 MW electrical high-temperature gas-cooled reactor.

The PFM facility is located on the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP), where USNC purchased an 8.7-acre site with a pre-existing industrial building in 2021. ETTP is the former site of a complex of uranium enrichment facilities dating back to the Manhattan Project. Operations at the enrichment plant ceased in 1987. Since then, the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Environmental Management has been working to decommission and clean up the site for redevelopment.

The PFM will codify and demonstrate its manufacturing modules which will eventually be deployed into new production facilities to meet the demand for fuelling MMR and other advanced terrestrial and space energy systems, the company said.

The new facility is near DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the National Nuclear Security Administration's Y-12 National Security Complex. This, together with access to east Tennessee's highly skilled and motivated nuclear workforce, was a key consideration in selecting the site, said Kurt Terrani, executive vice president of USNC's Core Division. "The excellent support we received from Tennessee Department of Community & Economic Development as well as Tennessee Valley Authority made the decision that much easier," he added.

The manufacturing modules and technologies that will be deployed at the PFM facility are based on smaller scale systems and processes originally developed under various DOE programmes, especially at ORNL. Earlier this year, UNSC also licensed a 3D-printing process for manufacturing refractory ceramic carbides, from ORNL, and proximity to and strong cooperation with the lab will be "highly instrumental" in its efforts to commercialise the technologies and establish a cost-effective advanced nuclear fuel supply chain, it said.

USNC, which is privately funded, said it has invested more than USD12 million to date into the PFM facility, which will create more than 30 highly skilled jobs within its first two years of operation.

"The investment of USNC in the PFM facility and other advanced manufacture facilities in the US indicates that the commercialisation of our micro modular reactor is imminent," USNC CEO Francesco Venneri said.

"We're reaching a key point in the evolution of the MMR, with a well-developed technology, the responsive engagement with regulators, and the demand from customers in multiple regions, where a firm commitment to establish a strong manufacturing base is warranted. The PFM facility is one extremely important step we are taking in this direction."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News