GE Global Research takes lead on $34M nuclear safety project

New fuel rods will be better able to withstand heat, pressure in emergency
Evan Dolley, left, and Steve Buresh examine a prototype tube in the metals and ceramics building at GE Global Research in Niskay
Evan Dolley, left, and Steve Buresh examine a prototype tube in the metals and ceramics building at GE Global Research in Niskay

NISKAYUNA — General Electric Global Research in Niskayuna will take the lead on efforts to develop better fuel rods for nuclear reactors, under a nearly $34 million federal contract announced Thursday.

It’s part of a widespread effort to make reactors better able to withstand accidents, an effort begun after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, in which an earthquake and tsunami disabled cooling systems at a power plant and three reactor meltdowns resulted.

GE researchers are leading the effort to develop an iron-alloy tube that is more resistant to extreme heat and pressure than the zirconium alloy tubes used now. The tubes are packed with uranium pellets to become fuel rods. 

Two GE materials scientists are managing the work, which is being done in Niskayuna: Evan Dolley, who focuses on materials behavior, and Raul Rebak, who specializes in corrosion.

“If there was a severe accident and you lose cooling water, the technology will allow more time to react,” Dolley said.

The array of tools and human expertise on-site is making the project possible, he added. The extremes of both boiling water reactors (the design used by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy) and pressurized water reactors (the design used by Westinghouse) can be simulated: temperatures of 1,500 degrees Celsius or pressures of 3,000 pounds per square inch.

“Here at Global Research, we have some very unique autoclave systems,” Dolley said. 

Other research done by Global Research on high-temperature ceramic composites and 3D laser printer fabrication is expected to be incorporated into the project.

Dolley said the biggest challenge so far has been taking a chunk of metal and turning it into a thin, hollow rod in a cost-effective manner.

“It’s difficult to get it from that block ingot to that tube,” he said.

Each nuclear reactor uses up to 80,000 of the half-inch-wide, 12-foot-long, uranium packed rods at a time, and they need to be replaced every five to eight years. 

In the event of a cooling failure, external integrity of the tubes is critical to avoiding a meltdown or hydrogen explosion or other disastrous mishaps that spew radiation into the environment.

The nuclear power industry has been under congressional mandate since a year after Fukushima to make its reactors more accident-resistant. Dolley said this project is focused on that goal but should yield the secondary benefit of cost savings as well.

“We expect that there will be some operational benefits,” he said.

GE has about 45 reactors in operation around the world through its partnership with Hitachi. GE and Hitachi have a second business together, Global Nuclear Fuel, which supplies fuel rods. Global Nuclear Fuel, three national laboratories and two power utilities are partnering with GE Global Research on the $33.7 million U.S. Department of Energy contract announced Thursday.

The project is a continuation of work done since 2012 by GE and others. GE had already developed an iron-aluminum-chromium alloy it calls IronClad; earlier this year it installed empty tubes made from that alloy in a commercial nuclear reactor for testing purposes.

The research in Niskayuna will not entail placing uranium in the tubes, Dolley said. The uranium by itself puts no stress on the tubes, so refining and testing the tubes to better withstand heat and pressure doesn’t require its presence.

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