Climate change objectives continue to be implemented around the world, the case for nuclear energy has never been clearer.
Advancements in nuclear fuel play a vital role in ensuring that nuclear plants remain part of the clean energy conversation. We sat down with Jeff Bradfute, Westinghouse’s vice president of Americas Fuel Delivery, to hear his thoughts on what the future of fuel looks like.
1. What does the future of nuclear fuel look like to you?What are some of the most exciting opportunities you see?
Nuclear power will play a major role in reducing carbon emissions over the next century. No matter what reactor types are built and operated to achieve this global objective, they will all need nuclear fuel! In the near-to-medium term, our focus will be on the design and manufacture of advanced LWR fuel products for the PWR, BWR and VVER markets that will continue for at least the next 60 to 80 years, while at the same time investing in the development of fuel products that will fuel the next generation of reactors (e.g., micro reactors, SMRs and Gen IV reactors).
The most exciting nuclear fuel opportunities for the operating fleet are centered on the introduction of new product features, materials and analysis methods that will allow the fuel to achieve higher burnup (i.e., extraction of more energy) and more rapid and frequent power changes. These modifications will minimize fuel, operating and maintenance costs while maximizing plant revenues from the production of electricity. These new product features and fuel capabilities must be licensed and maintain flawless fuel performance at all times for our customers. This means eliminating fuel leakers due to design, manufacturing and operations; no performance or handling issues due to structural changes in the assembly over core life; and no negative impacts to core power due to excessive crud buildup or corrosion. We currently have robust products that help our customers achieve flawless fuel performance, and will continue to do so as we innovate to help our customers achieve their next level of performance with advanced nuclear fuel products.
2. Some of these projects have a long lead time, why should I be thinking about these types of advancements now versus waiting until they’re commercially viable?
Long lead times are very typical of new fuel development. While there are opportunities to reduce the development cycle time, our regulators require that we use a rigorous development process that obtains in core irradiation data to confirm our products will perform as licensed. This takes time, as does the licensing process itself.
There are several reasons why it is important for fuel customers to think about nuclear fuel advancements years before they will be commercially available:
By being involved with the fuel vendor early on, we have the opportunity to ensure your needs are understood so that the product development process addresses your specific concerns.
You have the opportunity to understand the product capabilities and optimize how they can best be used to maximize critical margins and minimize costs at the plant.
The focus of several fuel advancement programs today are to enable 24-month cycles in high power density plants. Moving a plant from 18-month cycles to 24-month cycles is an enterprise-level decision (and not solely a fuel decision), and the business case analysis and corporate decision could require several years to execute. Utilities cannot afford to do these activities in linear fashion; there must be engagement long before commercial viability is achieved.
3. If I’m a utility who’s not looking to make changes to my current fuel cycle structure, are there additional benefits to these types of innovations?
Yes, there are additional benefits available from the innovation programs that Westinghouse currently has underway. In the area of fuel reliability, Westinghouse is further improving its fuel debris resistance features by introducing an advanced bottom nozzle that further restricts the flow path for debris. Longer-term improvements will focus on incorporating an additively manufactured flow plate that further improves debris catching efficiency while at the same time lowering pressure drop. In the area of fuel performance, we are introducing our ADOPT high density pellet to allow plants to reduce required feed batch sizes and reduce fuel cycle costs.
4. The nuclear market is so focused on maintaining its cost-competitiveness, why make such an investment into these new fuel solutions?
Based on a significant body of work performed in partnership with key industry stakeholders such as NEI and EPRI, we have been shown that investment in accident tolerant nuclear fuel and high burnup methods will provide substantial benefit from the cost reductions it will be able to achieve in the O&M area.
5. Aside from the product itself, how can nuclear fuel vendors help me prepare for the fuel of the future?
We have been jointly working with many utilities on the business cases needed to justify that the investment and possible changes in plant operations. Through this partnership, we fully assess program and licensing risk for better understanding in advance of implementation decisions. As innovations progress and milestones are achieved, we continue to foster our relationships with utilities, regulatory bodies, academia and other industry stakeholders to expedite the development of advanced nuclear fuel and prepare for its introduction to the commercial marketplace.