Russia masters production of zirconium sponge

7 October 2021

Launch of zirconium sponge production at Chepetsk Mechanical Plant in Russia (Photo: TVEL)Russia’s Chepetsk Mechanical Plant in Glazov (ChMP part of Rosatom’s Fuel Company TVEL) has mastered the technology for the production of zirconium sponge, TVEL said on 5 October.

The ceremony launching the new industrial production was attended by Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev and TVEL President Natalia Nikipelova.

Until now, ChMP, the only plant in Russia for the production of zirconium products, has produced only electrolytic zirconium powder using fluoride technology as a material for its products. However, worldwide, structural materials for the production of nuclear fuel are produced using zirconium sponge. Compared with fluoride technology, the new sponge production requires half the number of technological operations, the consumption of raw materials, materials, energy resources is reduced, the volume of waste is significantly reduced, while the high purity of zirconium (in terms of hafnium content) is ensured.

“Mastering the production of zirconium sponge is a milestone for the development of zirconium production in the fuel division of Rosatom. The creation of our own Russian technology from scratch and the construction of a new production is a huge achievement for our scientists and production workers and an important contribution to increasing our global competitiveness. Zirconium sponge can be widely used in the production of fuel for all major power reactors, of both Russian and foreign design,” noted TVEL President Nikipelova,.

The launch of a new production at the Chepetsk Mechanical Plant was the result of large-scale long-term work and wide industry-wide cooperation, TVEL noted. Domestic production of zirconium sponge required solving many problems that Russian scientists, designers and industry faced for the first time. The complete technological cycle and all the equipment for the production of zirconium sponge were designed and manufactured by Russian organisations. In the course of mastering the technology, more than 100 new technical solutions were developed, and 17 inventions and patents were registered.

The most important stage of the project was the development of the last - twelfth technological conversion - rectification separation of zirconium and hafnium chlorides. At the ChMP site, a unique production facility was built and put into operation - a unit for separating zirconium and hafnium chlorides. The height of the installation is over 80 metres, the installation includes 147 pieces of equipment, more than 2000 sensors, instrumentation and automation, and  heated process pipelines with a total length of more than 2000 metres. The technology made it possible to obtain extremely high purity zirconium tetrachloride (with a hafnium content of less than 100 ppm), which is an important parameter for the efficient operation of nuclear fuel.

During the creation of the facility, Russia for the first time mastered the technology for manufacturing equipment from a nickel-chromium-molybdenum alloy. In addition, pumps for pumping melts and heat and mass exchangers were developed, tested and manufactured, pipeline fittings were selected, and issues relating to measuring the flow rate and level of chloride melts in the equipment were solved.

Ceremony marking the start of production of zirconium sponge at Russia's Chepetsk Mechanical Plant (Photo credit: TVEL)

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