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Separate effects irradiation testing of miniature fuel specimens

by Christian M Petrie, Joseph R Burns, Alicia M Raftery, Andrew T Nelson, Kurt A Terrani
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Journal of Nuclear Materials
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Qualification of new nuclear fuels is necessary for their deployment and requires a thorough understanding of fuel behavior under irradiation. Traditionally, nuclear fuels have been qualified by performing exhaustive integral tests under a limited range of prototypic conditions designed for their specific reactor application. While some integral fuel testing is essential, basic data on behavior and property evolution under irradiation can be obtained from separate effects tests. These irradiations could offer reduced cost, reduced complexity, and in the case of accelerated testing, reduced time to achieve a given burnup. Furthermore, it may be desirable to design test irradiations capable of deconvoluting the myriad effects of burnup, temperature gradients, and other factors inherent to integral irradiation tests. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed an experimental capability to perform separate effects irradiation testing of miniature fuel specimens in the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR): the “MiniFuel” irradiation vehicle. The small size (<4 mm3) of the fuel specimens simplifies the design, analysis, and post-irradiation examination. By reducing the fuel mass, the total heat generated inside the experiment vehicle can be dominated by gamma heating in the structural materials instead of fission heating in the fuel. This essentially decouples the fuel temperature from the fission rate, allowing for highly accelerated testing (3X−18X the burnup rate of a typical light water reactor for 235U enrichments varying from 0.22 wt% to 8 wt%) and an extremely flexible experiment design that can accommodate a wide range of fuel temperatures (∼100 °C to >1200 °C), compositions, enrichments, and even geometries without requiring detailed analyses for each fuel variant. This paper summarizes the experiment design concept, evaluates potential applications for specific fuel forms, and briefly describes the first set of experiments on uranium nitride kernels that have been assembled and are currently being irradiated in the HFIR.