The Research | Research Quantities of Commercial Nuclear Fuel

As the nation’s largest source of low-carbon, 24-7 electricity, nuclear energy is an important part of the solution to the nation’s energy challenges. Today’s commercial nuclear fuels are more efficient than those of the past, which has reduced costs for utilities and their customers.

To maintain safe storage at utility locations around the U.S., the industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) need to better understand the physical and chemical characteristics of this high-efficiency nuclear fuel. INL research on 25 rods of used nuclear fuel — containing about 100 pounds of heavy metal — could help answer these important scientific questions.

INL is an internationally-recognized nuclear energy laboratory ideally suited for this research. The nation has made considerable investments to build unmatched research capabilities at INL. The nation is capitalizing on those investments by conducting this important research at the laboratory most qualified for the work.

To do this work, researchers need to analyze irradiated material, very small amounts of spent nuclear fuel in some cases, in order to understand performance and safety issues. At INL, one-of-a-kind R&D capabilities include the Advanced Test Reactor, the Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) facility and the Hot Fuel Examination Facility, the largest “hot cell” in the United States designed to test and examine irradiated materials.

In recent years, Congress has increased investment to maintain and upgrade INL’s distinctive facilities to carry out its nuclear mission. For example, the INL nuclear energy infrastructure budget was funded at:

  • $206 million in FY2015
  • $222 million in FY2016
  • $237 million in FY2017
  • $294 million in FY2018
  • $318 million in FY2019

This funding from DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is the engine that allows INL to support critical work for nuclear energy, national security, renewable energy and commercial customers. These funds are predicated on INL’s ability to do work on irradiated materials.

Two such INL projects include:

• Work with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the NRC on a $4 million Nuclear Science User Facilities project to support NRC licensing. The project will analyze how higher burnup (> 65 GWd/MTU) fuel would behave under loss-of-coolant accident conditions.

• The DOE Joint Fuel Cycle Campaign established an agreement with the Republic of Korea (i.e. South Korea) in 2011 to show that electrochemical reprocessing works on high-burnup nuclear fuel. Small amounts of high-burnup spent fuel will be shipped from Exelon’s Byron nuclear plant to INL for the research.