The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a $33.7 million project to General Electric to continue the development of advanced fuel rod technologies for the nuclear industry, with significant project work happening in Wilmington.
The two-and-a-half-year project aims to the develop and demonstrate new fuel rods that could be commercially deployed and set new standards in plant safety, stated a recent GE news release.
The project is currently underway, according to a GE spokesman.
The project will include Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF), a GE-led joint venture with Hitachi Ltd. that operates primarily through Global Nuclear Fuel-Americas LLC in Wilmington and Global Nuclear Fuel-Japan Co. Ltd. in Kurihama, Japan. The company is a supplier of boiling water reactor fuel and fuel-related engineering services.
An interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers from GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, which is leading the project, has been working with GNF, national labs and the department of energy on IronClad, an alternative material solution for nuclear fuel rods that are more durable in extreme conditions, officials said in the release.
Jon Allen, spokesman for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, which shares its Wilmington campus with GNF, said that some project work will take place in Wilmington, including engineering and manufacturing.
“Research and development of materials, inspection techniques and testing, as well as corresponding analysis and software methods development, will be conducted in Wilmington,” he said in the email. “Work will also be coordinated with GE Global Research and with our customer partners.”
GE Global Research is a team of more than 1,000 scientific, engineering and marketing officials working to deliver “world-changing innovations and capabilities” for customers, according to the release.
“Our project aims to raise the bar even higher by developing alternative fuel rods that are even more resistant and could endure the loss of active cooling in a reactor core much longer than current fuel,” said Evan Dolley, technical operations leader in metals at GE Global Research, in the release.
GE and other industry partners have been working with the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to drive new and safer nuclear technologies, including the advancement of GE’s alternative IronClad material for fuel rods, which according to officials, is more tolerant than the current state-of-the-art metal used to make fuel rods today.
GNF announced in February that it shipped lead test assemblies of two of its accident-tolerant fuel solutions
, IronClad and ARMOR, which are manufactured at its Wilmington facility.
GE owns the product rights for both IronClad and ARMOR, Allen said.
Those accident-tolerant fuel solutions were taken to Alabama-based Southern Nuclear Operating Co. for plant installation earlier this year.
The installation of IronClad material also took place at The Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Plant in southeastern Georgia. Lead test assemblies that include both IronClad and ARMOR fueled rods are also planned for installation in 2019 at Exelon Generation’s Clinton Power Station in Illinois.
GNF has been working on the development of these technologies, an iron-chromium-aluminum fuel cladding material known as IronClad and coated zirconium fuel cladding known as ARMOR, to bring to market for several years.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the GE Global Research team, customers and partners to pave the way for deployment of our IronClad and ARMOR advanced fuel solutions in reload quantities,” said Amir Vexler, CEO of GNF.
According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear energy accounts for 11 percent of the world’s energy from 450 nuclear reactors. It makes up 20 percent of energy in the U.S. In France, nuclear comprises 72 percent of their energy mix.
It is anticipated the new fuel rods being designed by GE scientists will provide enhanced fuel reliability, increased safety, operational flexibility and reduced cost by leveraging accident tolerant properties, withstanding extreme conditions for longer periods of time.
In addition to developing an alternative metal material for the fuel rods, Dolley said the project team also is pulling unique technical expertise from its Aviation and Additive businesses, officials said in the release.
"Ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), which are high-temperature materials used in commercial jet engines to improve efficiency and performance, are being applied to develop the channel boxes that surround the fuel rods," officials said.
The test assemblies consist of between four and eight bundles at each reactor, Allen said.
"Learnings from this research and program will accelerate licensing and fabrication readiness for full production quantities," Allen added.
"Reload quantities means approximately one-third of the existing core that is replaced with fresh fuel bundles during each service outage (which occur every 18-24 months). This is approximately 250 bundles," he added.
The $33.7 million project will also deploy additional test fuel rods of GNF’s ARMOR in the same reactor as the Ironclad test segments, stated the GE release.
The project team is also developing additive technologies to be used to quickly fabricate 3D metal end caps for prototyping the fuel rod designs, officials said.
“With the integration of nuclear-grade CMCs, we can exploit the higher heat properties of ceramics to build an even more resilient system," Dolley said in the release. "And the use of additive is designed to enable a more rapid response if spare parts are needed for other reactor components."
The further development of the fuel rod and related components will be done in partnership with the Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Idaho national labs.
GNF, Exelon and Southern Nuclear are conducting field studies with more planned in the future, officials said.
“Once all the phases of the project are complete, these products will be ready for commercialization. They would primarily be manufactured in Wilmington,” Allen said.
Dolley said that with the department of energy's support and partnerships GE has the as the opportunity to accelerate its ongoing fuel rod work and ultimately deliver new technologies to market that "benefit our U.S. nuclear facilities and those globally,” he said.