Most PWRs use uranium fuel, which is in the form of uranium dioxide. Uranium dioxide is a black semiconducting solid with very low thermal conductivity. On the other hand, uranium dioxide has a very high melting point and has well-known behavior. The UO2 is pressed into pellets. These pellets are then sintered into the solid cylinder (with a height and diameter of about 1 centimeter, the height being greater than the diameter). The dimensions of the fuel pellets and other components of the fuel assembly are precisely controlled to ensure consistency in the characteristics of the fuel. These pellets are then loaded and encapsulated within a fuel rod (a metallic cladding tube), which is made of zirconium alloys due to its very low absorption cross-section (unlike stainless steel). The surface of the tube, which covers the pellets, is called fuel cladding. Fuel rods are the base element of a fuel assembly. Fuel rods have the purpose of containing fission products, ensuring mechanical support for the pellets, and allowing the heat removal to the coolant fluid of the heat generated by nuclear reactions. A typical fuel rod has a length of some 4 m, with a diameter of around 1 cm. An 1100 MWe (3300 MWth) nuclear core may contain 157 fuel assemblies composed of over 45,000 fuel rods and some 15 million fuel pellets.
Encapsulated fuel – TRISO-SiC-composite pellets
TRISO, TRI-structural ISO-tropic, is a type of micro fuel particle consisting of fissile material-bearing kernels coated with multiple layers of porous or dense carbon and silicon carbide. Historically, TRISO particles have been utilized in fuel elements consisting of spherical pebbles or hexagonal prismatic blocks with graphite used as a matrix and coating for the fuel element. Each particle acts as its own containment system thanks to its triple-coated layers. This allows them to retain fission products under all reactor conditions. TRISO particles can withstand extreme temperatures that are well beyond the threshold of current nuclear fuels. TRISO-SiC-composite pellets consist of TRISO fuel particles embedded in a SiC matrix. Using SiC as a matrix instead of graphite improves the radiation tolerance of the fuel matrix while also enhancing FP retention. The TRISO-SiC-composite fuel is generally called a fully ceramic microencapsulated (FCM) fuel.
According to the NEA report, the TRISO-SiC fuel is conceived as a promising medium-term concept to replace current UO2 fuel pellets. It has potentially superior safety characteristics relative to other fuel forms as a result of its multiple barriers to FP dispersion, high mechanical stability, and good thermal conductivity. A low fissile material loading density is the major issue for this concept. In order to increase the fissile loading, the combination of uranium enrichment up to the practical upper limit of LEU(~19.7% of 235-U), increasing kernel-to-particle volume fraction and TRISO-packing fraction, and enlarging fuel pin diameter was proposed.
Silicon carbide is an exceedingly hard, synthetically produced crystalline compound of silicon and carbon. Its chemical formula is SiC. Silicon carbide has a Mohs hardness rating of 9, approaching that of a diamond. Its high thermal conductivity, high-temperature strength, low thermal expansion, and resistance to a chemical reaction make silicon carbide valuable in the manufacture of high-temperature applications and other refractories. In the nuclear industry, silicon carbide composite material has been investigated for use as a replacement for zirconium alloy cladding in light water reactors. Silicon carbide (SiC) based ceramics, and their composites have superior high-temperature (HT) properties, excellent irradiation resistance, inherent low activation, and superior physical/chemical properties.