Safer, more efficient nuclear fuel almost ready to hit the market

US researchers have reached a new milestone in the development of a fourth-generation reactor fuel, known as tristructural-isotropic (TRISO), as they prove it can resist high-temperature accident conditions.

The team from the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) say the finding proves the new kind of nuclear energy is more robust than previously thought.

Specifically, the team found that even at 1,800 degrees Celsius (more than 200 degrees Celsius greater than postulated accident conditions) most fission products remained inside the fuel particles, which each boast their own primary containment system.


Fuel pellet cross section.

"The ability of the fuel to retain fission products at such high temperatures translates directly to enhanced safety of the reactor," said in a statement Paul Demkowicz, the technical lead for post-irradiation examination of TRISO fuel. "This sort of test data is important input for reactor design and reactor licensing."

The news comes amid increasing tension over the situation at Japan’s tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant, whose ongoing leaks came under the international spotlight in recent weeks, when the country’s nuclear authority (NRA) disclosed in early September that radiation levels around the plant were “18 times higher” than thought.

The US has the highest number of commercial nuclear power plants and is the biggest consumer of nuclear fuel in the world.

The country stopped producing highly enriched uranium in 1964, when it reached the maximum of 30,000 nuclear warheads in its possession.

Image by Idaho National Laboratory.