Idaho National Laboratory has awarded BWX Technologies Inc a USD26 million, 20-month contract to expand and upgrade its manufacturing line for TRISO nuclear fuel. The award, to BWXT Nuclear Operations Group, Inc, (BWXT NOG), will expand its capacity for the manufacture of TRISO fuel compacts and also upgrade existing systems for delivering production-scale quantities of the fuel, BWXT said.
BWXT in October 2019 announced plans to restart and expand its TRISO fuel production line because of strong market signals. "Since that time, we have made significant technical progress on our ongoing restart activities, including releasing the solution preparation, kernel forming, and sintering furnace systems for production use," BWXT NOG President Joel Duling said.
TRISO - tristructural isotropic - fuel particles contain a spherical kernel of enriched uranium oxycarbide surrounded by layers of carbon and silicon carbide. The fuel particles are very small - described by the US Department of Energy as being about the size of a poppy seed - and robust. They can be fabricated into cylindrical pellets or spheres for use in either high temperature gas or molten salt-cooled reactors.
BWXT said it anticipates potential awards for additional contract options that would enable the fabrication and delivery of the fuel in support of future "game-changing missions" for both the US Department of Defense and NASA. This project is an effort jointly funded by the Department of Defense's Operational Energy Capabilities Improvement Fund Office and NASA, with overall program management provided by the Strategic Capabilities Office.
"We plan to continue to leverage our capabilities for growth given the outlook we see for this and other specialty nuclear fuel types for Department of Energy and NASA programs, as well as emerging commercial customers," BWXT President and CEO Rex Geveden said.
US Assistant Secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal noted that TRISO fuel qualification testing is currently underway at Idaho National Laboratory. "Expanding this capability with support from the lab will bring us one step closer to bringing high-temperature gas and molten salt reactors online," she tweeted.
BWXT claims to be the only US company to manufacture irradiation-tested uranium oxycarbide TRISO fuel using production-scale equipment. Its TRISO production facility, at Lynchburg in Virginia, is currently licensed to produce high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) TRISO fuel, which is undergoing validation in a series of experiments at Idaho National Laboratory at their Advanced Test Reactor under the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor program. BWXT has worked with the DOE in support of TRISO-based fuel development and qualification for more than 15 years.