UK invests in advanced nuclear fuel research

07 August 2015

Grants totalling £2.5 million ($3.9 million) have been awarded by the UK government to the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) and the University of Manchester for the development of accident tolerant nuclear fuels.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has awarded £1.5 million ($2.3 million) to the NNL and £1.0 million ($1.6 million) to the University of Manchester to fund new capital equipment for nuclear fuel and manufacturing research. The investment will establish facilities for the development of nuclear fuels with enhanced accident tolerance.

Through the investment, equipment will be installed at NNL's laboratory in Preston, including a purpose-built rig to enable studies of the reaction between uranium hexafluoride and silicon, as well as an arc melter for fabrication of uranium-based intermetallic compounds. An inert glovebox fuel line will also be set up containing grinding and milling equipment, a press and furnace, to enable pellet fabrication suitable for use in test reactor irradiations.

The grant to the University of Manchester will enable work on advanced ceramic composite claddings which it claims could offer great potential to improve the temperature capabilities of nuclear fuel.

NNL said that fuels are being developed with the aim of not only enhancing safety performance, but also to improve the economics and efficiency of existing and future reactors, including some designs of small modular reactors. In particular, it said, fuel materials with higher density and thermal conductivity - such as uranium nitrides and silicides - are being considered as potential replacements for uranium oxide.

The new capabilities will "allow the scalability of manufacturing processes to be assessed as well as providing a test bed for the investigation of promising advanced fuel fabrication techniques, such as spark plasma sintering and additive manufacturing," NNL said. It noted that facilities are also being developed to characterise novel accident tolerant fuel (ATF) materials.

Tim Abram, Westinghouse chair in nuclear fuel technology at the University of Manchester, said: "We're delighted that DECC have recognized the important role that ATF could play in enhancing the safety and performance of the UK's current and future nuclear power plants."

Research into ATF has been identified as a high priority by the UK government's independent advisory board on civil nuclear energy research, the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board.

Work on nuclear fuels research and development is carried out through the Nuclear Fuel Centre of Excellence (NFCE), launched jointly by the University of Manchester and NNL last October. Access to the new equipment will also be available to researchers from outside the NNL through funded research programs facilitated by the NFCE.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News