Steven J. Zinkle, the Governor's Chair in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and colleagues at the University of Tennessee and ORNL presented the most recent developments in nuclear plant fuel encasement at the Oct. 29, 2013, session of the AVS International Symposium and Exhibition in Long Beach, California.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster has prompted government and scientists in the United States to look at safer methods of containment of nuclear fuel in the event of natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima meltdown.
Nuclear fuels like uranium and plutonium are presently encased in zirconium alloys. The researchers have developed new encasement materials made from steel alloys, coated molybdenum, and nuclear-grade silicon carbide composites that are 100 times more efficient in preventing oxidation of nuclear fuels and the resultant escape of radiation in the event of an accident. The presently used zirconium technology is 50 years old.
The nuclear plants in the United States have tripled the backup electrical capacity at all nuclear plants in the United States. This action provides a necessary safety component that was lacking in the Fukushima incident.
Any changes in nuclear fuel casing technology may be a decade away from full commercial use due to time that safety protocols dictate for testing of new technology in nuclear facilities.