The safe, reliable, and economic operation of the nation’s nuclear power reactor fleet has always been a top priority for the United States’ nuclear industry. Continual improvement of technology, including advanced materials and nuclear fuels, remains central to the industry’s success. Decades of research combined with continual operation have produced steady advancements in technology and have yielded an extensive base of data, experience, and knowledge on light-water reactor fuel performance under both normal and accident conditions. Thanks to efforts by both the U.S. government and private companies, nuclear technologies have advanced over time to optimize economic operations at nuclear power plants while ensuring safety.
One of the missions of the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) is to develop nuclear fuels and claddings with enhanced accident tolerance. In 2011, following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex, enhancing the accident tolerance of LWRs became a topic of serious discussion. As a result of direction from Congress, NE initiated accident-tolerant fuel (ATF) development as a primary component of the Fuel Cycle Research and Development (FCRD) Advanced Fuels Campaign.
Prior to the accident at Fukushima, the emphasis of advanced LWR fuel development was on improving nuclear fuel performance in terms of increased burnup for waste minimization, increased power density for power upgrades, and increased fuel reliability. Fukushima highlighted some undesirable performance characteristics of the standard fuel system during severe accidents, including accelerated hydrogen production under certain circumstances. Thus, fuel system behavior under design-basis accident and severe-accident conditions became the primary focus for advanced fuels, along with striving for improved performance under normal operating conditions to ensure that proposed new fuels will be economically viable.
The goal of the ATF development effort is to demonstrate performance with a lead test rod (LTR) or lead test assembly (LTA) irradiation in a commercial power reactor by 2022. Research and development activities are being conducted at multiple national laboratories and universities and within the industry, with support from the DOE program.
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