ARKANSAS, Nov 25 (Future Headlines)- Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have achieved a significant milestone in the advancement of nuclear technology by successfully fabricating commercial-grade high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel pellets. HALEU, uranium enriched to levels between 5% and 20% uranium-235, is crucial for the development of next-generation reactor designs. This breakthrough not only contributes to the fueling of advanced reactors but also plays a pivotal role in establishing a domestic HALEU supply chain. In collaboration with General Electric (GE), the team at INL is taking a major step forward in testing and qualifying HALEU fuel, addressing the increasing demand for advanced nuclear energy solutions.

HALEU serves as a key component in the fuel makeup required for the majority of advanced nuclear reactors currently in the developmental phase. With uranium enrichment levels ranging from 5% to 20%, HALEU provides increased in-core lifetimes for advanced reactors. The fabrication of HALEU fuel pellets represents a crucial aspect of the testing and qualification process for these reactors. Higher enrichment translates to a higher concentration of uranium-235 atoms in each pellet, enhancing the overall performance of advanced nuclear systems.

INL’s Experimental Fuels Facility successfully produced approximately two dozen commercial-grade HALEU fuel pellets, enriched to 15% uranium-235. This accomplishment marks a vital step in the testing and qualification process for advanced nuclear fuels. The fuel pellets were fabricated using a traditional powder metallurgy process, employing a pressure-less sintering technique akin to methods used by the industry for manufacturing light water reactor fuel. The success of this fabrication process demonstrates the capability to produce commercial-quality uranium dioxide (UO2) HALEU, providing flexibility in enrichment levels without impacting existing operating licenses.

INL’s collaboration with General Electric is poised to further advance nuclear research by subjecting 100-150 HALEU fuel pellets to irradiation tests in the Advanced Test Reactor. This collaboration focuses on testing the endurance of a cladding material prototype that holds the potential to enhance the performance of both existing light water reactors and future advanced reactors. The project, funded under the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Accident Tolerant Fuel Program, aligns with industry-led efforts to commercialize new fuels within the next decade. Beyond immediate applications, the research is expected to contribute to the licensing of various advanced reactor designs, reinforcing the importance of HALEU in the evolving nuclear energy landscape.

The successful fabrication of UO2 HALEU by INL opens avenues for exploring a variety of HALEU types, including metallic and ceramic options. The versatility demonstrated by INL in tailoring enrichments to customer and experiment requirements is noteworthy. Fuel options such as nitride, boride, carbide, and silicide offer higher uranium densities, promising even greater performance levels for advanced reactors. This underscores INL’s capability to adapt and innovate, positioning it as a crucial hub for developing unique and novel fuel concepts.

In parallel developments, Centrus Energy has delivered the first HALEU produced at its American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, to the DOE. This marks the completion of phase one of the contract with the DOE, allowing Centrus to move forward with the second phase: a full year of HALEU production at the 900 kilograms per year plant. Centrus’ successful delivery of over 20 kilograms of HALEU underscores the progress made in establishing a domestic supply chain for this critical nuclear fuel. The HALEU produced by Centrus will be stored until needed, reflecting a strategic approach to maintaining a stable and reliable fuel supply.

Editing by Sarah White