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INL, BWXT celebrates start of TRISO nuclear fuel production


Executives of BWX Technologies, along with officials from the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Energy, NASA and Idaho National Laboratory gathered Wednesday at The Virginian hotel in Lynchburg to celebrate the company starting production of a type of nuclear fuel.

The fuel, called TRISO, will power the first microreactor built and operated in the United States, according to BWXT, a nuclear-services firm that employs about 2,600 people in the Lynchburg area.

Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWXT, said TRISO is the “most robust fuel on earth” and each particle is made with multiple coatings designed to capture all the nuclear reaction products, prevent failure at extremely high temperatures and provide resistance to neutron radiation corrosion and oxidation.

He said the particles are very small, each about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen.

“In the future, we should see these fuels being used for a variety of new technologies, including micro reactors that provide clean energy to remote communities, or areas recovering from natural disasters and space reactors that will one day transport humans to Mars and provide them with power when they arrive,” he said. “These possibilities are all exciting to consider.”

TRISO stands for TRIstructural ISOtropic. “Tristructural” refers to three layers of carbon and ceramic materials surrounding kernels of uranium-based fuel. “Isotropic” means the coatings have uniform characteristics in all directions, according to BWXT.

Fuel particles, each the size of a poppy seed, are enriched to a level four times higher than fuel used in most of today’s commercial nuclear reactors. The coatings retain fission products, making each particle its own containment system. They also protect the fuel from the factors that most degrade performance in conventional reactors — neutron irradiation, corrosion, oxidation and high temperatures, according to BWXT.

The small, energy-dense coated uranium particles can withstand high temperatures, enabling smaller and more advanced reactor designs.

Ryan Colvert, with BWXT’s government relations division, said BWXT is the only U.S. company manufacturing TRISO particles.

Under a $37 million award from the Idaho National Laboratory, BWXT will manufacture a core for Project Pele, a microreactor designed to be capable of being safely transported in standard-sized shipping containers.

BWXT also will produce TRISO fuel for additional reactors and coated particle fuel for NASA, which is developing ways to use nuclear fuel in spaceflight.

INL will administer the contract and provide the technical support and oversight, while the fuel will be fabricated at BWXT’s Mt. Athos Road facility.

Geveden said the company doesn’t have to build a facility or gain licensing approval to do this work.

“We have all that and we are making TRISO fuel now. We spent the last few years making capital improvements to our nuclear operations facility that is located here in Lynchburg to expand production capacity for this very purpose,” he said. “Our facilities enable us to meet today’s customer needs to position us to innovate and produce new fuels for whatever comes next.”

Three years ago, BWXT announced its plans to restart and expand its TRISO nuclear fuel line, and a year later it completed that restart and began producing some fuel, he said.

“Late last year, we reached a critical milestone in space Nuclear Propulsion by delivering potent fuels for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate,” he said. “Nuclear thermal propulsion is the technology capable of propelling a spacecraft to Mars and back and importantly it can withstand the environmental and operational extremes that are associated with spaceflight.”

This year, BWXT was selected by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office to manufacture and deliver a prototype microreactor to be integrated and operated at the Idaho National Laboratory starting in 2024.

Microreactors such as Project Pele are designed to reduce the need for vulnerable fossil fuel deliveries relied on by the U.S. military, and also to provide power for disaster response and recovery, power generation in remote areas and deep decarbonization efforts.

Jay Dryer, director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office, said to be able to demonstrate a safe, portable nuclear reactor by 2027 is still a tall order but is one that all parties involved have all signed up to work on.

“There is a capability here that it is going to help the men and women that are serving in the armed forces,” he said.

He said he’s been impressed with the workforce behind the project.

“There was a larger number that are really behind this project that made that possible,” he said.

James Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said NASA is excited about the potential for nuclear fission systems in space for both power and propulsion.

“I’ve been with NASA for almost 40 years now and I’ve never felt a more exciting time than we have now,” he said. “Nuclear systems really can change the way we think about operating in space and on other planets from the moon and Mars. We’re really trying to build up a sustainable presence, in this decade, on the moon and to get a sustained presence; one of the first fundamental things you need is a power source.”

To branch out beyond the moon and go to Mars with a large cargo crew, NASA needs new and revolutionized propulsion systems to get them there, and nuclear systems are easily the most promising and viable change the organization will use, he said.

He said NASA’s partnership with BWXT extends beyond this activity.

“We know that the industry has the knowledge and experience that can benefit NASA and the nation and when we work together, we can really get further. So we look forward to the upcoming work we have with BWXT and other partners that we have,” he said.

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