US-based BWX Technologies (BWXT) announced on 2 October that it is in the process of restarting its TRISO (TRIstructural-ISOtropic) nuclear fuel production line at its Lynchburg, Virginia facility and is planning to expand its capacity within approximately 12 months. The expansion will position the company to meet new client interests in Department of Defense microreactors, space reactors, and advanced civil reactors, BWXT said.
Uranium oxycarbide TRISO fuel comprises spherical particles of uranium with a triple carbon-coating giving each particle its own primary containment system. The fuel can withstand extreme temperatures and has low proliferation concerns and environmental risks.
BWXT is the only US company to manufacture irradiation-tested 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. The facility is undergoing validation in a series of experiments at Idaho National Laboratory at their Advanced Test Reactor under the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor programme. BWXT and the DOE have cooperated in the development and qualification of TRISO-based fuel for more than 15 years.
BWXT’s expansion is expected to be handled in two steps. Over the next few months, BWXT will add additional equipment and staff at the facility to restart production. Within 24-32 months, the firm will complete capacity upgrades to begin increased TRISO production to meet emerging customer needs. BWXT plans to hire up to 60 additional workers to boost its TRISO fuel manufacturing team.
TRISO production with HALEU requires at least an NRC Category 2 licence, which can take several years and substantial investment to obtain. BWXT currently has the only private Category 1 licences in the USA, and they can also be used to produce Category 2 material.
Using the existing infrastructure would far lower initial costs compared with setting up a new TRISO production facility, and would not significantly increase current decontamination and decommissioning liabilities, according to BWXT. BWXT says it already has the required safety, security, quality, material accountability, and operational systems needed. The company can also leverage the expertise of hundreds of security-cleared engineers, trained uranium processing technicians and other professionals to quickly and safely ramp up to required production targets.
Photo: TRISO particles cannot melt in a reactor and can withstand extreme temperatures well beyond the threshold of current nuclear fuels (Credit: DOE)