DOE awards $3 million for INL research projects

29 September 2009

A new research project at Idaho National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory will use an innovative approach to learn how to get more use from nuclear fuel.

INL has won a competitive research grant that could help nuclear fuel be recycled or used for longer periods of time to produce more energy. The INL team in Idaho will collaborate with scientists at the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS) user facility in Illinois.

The project demonstrates the US Department of Energy's commitment to conduct more basic research on nuclear fuel recycling. Thanks to $2 million in funding from DOE's Office of Science, INL researcher Gilles Youinou aims to give nuclear scientists a better understanding of how elements within fuel rods respond to neutron irradiation.

"If we're going to recycle nuclear fuel or burn it longer, we need a clearer understanding of how the daughter products respond to neutron irradiation," said Youinou.

As nuclear scientists consider recycling nuclear fuel to use more of the fissionable uranium, they would like more information about how prolonged neutron bombardment affects actinides such as neptunium, plutonium or americium.

That's where INL's new project comes in. Youinou and his team propose putting pure samples of common actinides — neptunium, americium and curium — into INL's Advanced Test Reactor. The ATR lets researchers subject materials to concentrated neutron irradiation in relatively short periods of time.

After 20 to 40 days in the ATR, the samples will be removed and sent to the ATLAS facility for analysis. Argonne collaborators Filip Kondev and Richard Pardo will oversee accelerator mass spectroscopy analysis at ATLAS, which will be able to detect miniscule amounts of material within a small sample size.

The analysis will provide precise measurements of rare isotopes that build up during the irradiation process, which allows researchers to infer fundamental nuclear characteristics of these elements. This is the first time post-irradiation work has been done using this approach or the ATLAS facility.

The project, originally conceived several years ago by senior advisor Massimo Salvatores, has several advantages. It uses a unique combination of expertise to offer quick and low-cost irradiation, high precision and fewer uncertainties than similar experiments have achieved.

This high-quality actinide data will enable more precise nuclear reactor simulations than are possible with current data. This type of information is required to reliably assess fuel performance in advanced nuclear systems. Such systems, which minimize waste and reduce proliferation risk, will be a fundamental asset of future sustainable nuclear energy development.

This project, one of two INL proposals funded by DOE's Office of Science will start on 1 October.

The second project, which received $1.05 million in funding over three years, aims to develop more accurate, and more universally applicable, reactor simulations. Scientists from INL and Brookhaven National Laboratory will use data from experiments already performed at nuclear facilities around the world to test and calibrate their models of nuclear reactions at the atomic level.

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