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High-burnup fuel stress analysis prior to and during a LOCA transient...

by Nathan A Capps, Ryan T Sweet, Jason M Harp, Christian M Petrie
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Journal of Nuclear Materials
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High-burnup fuel fragmentation and pulverization have been experimentally observed during simulated loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA) transient testing of high-burnup (>62 GWd/tU) nuclear fuel. The cause of this phenomenon is generally accepted to be the formation of stresses arising from the off-normal conditions. However, the primary mechanism(s) contributing to the stress formation is/are still being debated. Leading hypotheses suggest that the concurrence of fission gas bubbles and high burnup structure on the pellet periphery (i.e., the rim) leave the fuel susceptible to pulverization. Other hypotheses suggest that pulverization is artificially inflated during externally heated tests that do not reproduce prototypic fuel stresses and radial temperature profiles as the fuel transitions from full-power nuclear heating to decay heating. This work performs finite element analyses of fuel pellet temperatures and macroscopic stresses prior to and during a LOCA transient to identify (1) operating conditions that may exacerbate the fuel pellet stress state, (2) differences in predicted stresses with nuclear vs. furnace heating, and (3) how fuel cracking impacts the subsequent stress state in the pellet fragments. Analyses predict that macroscopic transient fuel stresses resulting from constrained thermal expansion will remain below the fracture stress of fresh UO2 once the fragment size reaches ~4 mm or less. Calculated fuel stresses from simulated LOCA tests performed with representative nuclear vs. electrical heating rates are shown to be equal within 5% and essentially unchanged for all times after the first 27 seconds of the transients. Because the fuel stresses do not change once the temperature profile becomes uniform, macroscopic transient stresses would be no different than those following a normal shutdown. Because pulverization of high burnup fuel does not occur prior to a LOCA test, pulverization of high burnup UO2 cannot be initiated by differential thermal stresses.