Over the last few decades the nuclear industry has made significant improvements in the reliability of zirconium-clad uranium dioxide ceramic fuel, but the essential structure and composition of nuclear fuel has barely changed. Various features have boosted the mechanical and corrosion performance of fuel assemblies, but there has been little incentive to develop fuels with higher burn-up or power density. This is due in part to the focus on reliability improvements – but is also because uranium was very cheap for a long period.
This situation is changing. While Zr-clad uranium oxide fuel offers reliable and cost-effective operating characteristics, several imperatives urge nuclear fuel improvements in terms of:
• Utilization of mined uranium: there is a push to improve the sustainability credentials for uranium use, in terms of energy extraction from the original mined material.
• Maximizing operational power rating: leading to plant efficiencies and economic benefits.
• Minimizing spent fuel volume & radiotoxicity: The transmutation (destruction) of transuranic elements within new fuels may provide cost-effective options for dealing with these materials.
• Further improving materials reliability and safety margins: lowering the risk of fuel failure (cladding breach) is always beneficial for reactor operators.
With these motivations in mind, the WNA is starting up a new Working Group to discuss and assess the range of water-reactor fuel technologies with reasonable prospects for commercialization, including: ceramic claddings, higher conductivity ceramic matrices, graphite-matrix coated-particle fuel pellets.
The Group will collate and assess these technologies in terms of potential cost savings, waste management benefits, and will identify licensing pathways and potential funding partnerships.
Julian F. Kelly recently joined WNA to take responsibility for this exciting initiative.
Julian has a materials science background (PhD - Australian National University) and for the last 3.5 years he worked for a small Norwegian energy technology company that has undertaken to develop a thorium-MOX fuel for light water reactors. He oversaw the design of a sophisticated trial irradiation experiment for this fuel, and he formulated investment strategies and major funding proposals for this advanced fuel. Julian previously served as Nuclear Counsellor/Attaché at the Australian Embassy in Vienna where he followed numerous technical issues/programs at the IAEA for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
Julian has also worked as a scientific advisor for nuclear issues for the Australian Department of Defence, and he has worked in the Australian mining sector prior to that.