US-based BWX Technologies (BWXT) announced on 1 July that its Nuclear Operations Group subsidiary has been awarded a competitively bid contract by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to expand and upgrade its TRIstructural-ISOtropic  (TRISO) nuclear fuel manufacturing line.

TRIstructural refers to layers of coatings surrounding the uranium fuel, and ISOtropic refers to the coatings having uniform materials characteristics in all directions so that fission products are essentially retained.

This $26 million, 20-month contract award will expand BWXT’s TRISO capacity for the manufacture of TRISO fuel compacts as well upgrading existing systems for delivering production-scale quantities of TRISO fuel.

At a later date, BWXT anticipates potential awards for additional contract options that would enable the fabrication and delivery of the fuel in support of future missions for both the Department of Defense and NASA.

The project is an effort jointly funded by the Department of Defense’s Operational Energy Capabilities Improvement Fund (OECIF) Office and NASA, with overall programme management provided by the Strategic Capabilities Office, BWXT said.

“In October 2019, we announced plans to restart and expand our TRISO fuel production line because of strong market signals. The award that we’re announcing today is another step in that direction,” said Joel Duling, BWXT Nuclear Operations Group  president. “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.”

“This contract award is another in a string of recent announcements at BWXT related to our unique ability to manufacture TRISO fuel at scale for both government and commercial customers,” said BWXT president and CEO Rex Geveden. “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 is the only US company to manufacture irradiation-tested uranium oxycarbide TRISO fuel using production-scale equipment. Its TRISO production facility is currently licensed to produce this type of High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel, which is undergoing validation in a series of experiments at INL’s Advanced Test Reactor under the Department of Energy’s advanced gas-cooled reactor programme. BWXT has worked with the DOE in support of TRISO-based fuel development and qualification for more than 15 years.