Fresh Fuel Assembly – Spent Fuel Assembly

Nuclear Fuel Assembly
Typical fuel assembly

Fresh Fuel Assembly

In PWRs, the reactor core consists of assemblies of fuel rods, featuring a zirconium alloy cladding, holding uranium oxide pellets (with uranium enriched to ~ 4% U-235), or MOX pellets (mixed uranium–plutonium oxides [(U,Pu)O2], with a Pu content of 5–10%). Fuel fabrication is the final step of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. In this step, a complete fuel assembly is fabricated. Since a fuel assembly consist of several structural parts, then this step may be processed at different locations and these parts may be also prefabricated.

The fuel assembly constitute the base element of the nuclear reactor core. The reactor core (PWR type) contains about 157 fuel assemblies (depending on a reactor type). Western PWRs use a square lattice arrangement and assemblies are characterized by the number of rods they contain, typically, 17×17 in current designs. The enrichment of fuel rods is never uniformed. The enrichment is differentiated in radial direction but also in axial direction. This arrangement improves power distribution and improves fuel economy.

Russian VVER-type reactors use a fuel that is characterized by their hexagonal arrangement, but is otherwise of similar length and structure to other PWR fuel assemblies.

A PWR fuel assemblies stand between four and five metres high,are about 20 cm across and weighs about 800 kg (of which about 500kg is uranium). The assemblies have vacant rod positions for control rods or in-core instrumentation. Control rods, in-core instrumentation, neutron source, or a test segment can be vertically inserted into a vacant tube called the guide thimble.

Special Reference: CEA, Nuclear Energy Division. Nuclear Fuels, ISBN 978-2-281-11345-7

Spent Nuclear Assembly

Spent nuclear fuel is a nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor (usually at a nuclear power plant or an experimental reactor) and that must be replaced by a fresh fuel due to its insufficient reactivity. Spent fuel is characterized by fuel burnup which is a measure of how much energy is extracted from a nuclear fuel and a measure of fuel depletion. Due to fuel depletion and fission fragments buildup, spent nuclear fuel is no longer useful in sustaining a nuclear reaction in an ordinary thermal reactor and it must be replaced by fresh fuel. Depending on its point along the nuclear fuel cycle, it may have considerably different isotopic constituents.

It must be noted, irradiated fuel is due to presence of high amount of radioactive fission fragments and transuranic elements very hot and very radioactive. Reactor operators have to manage the heat and radioactivity that remains in the “spent fuel” after it’s taken out of the reactor.  In nuclear power plants, spent nuclear fuel is usually stored underwater in the spent fuel pool on the plant.  Plant personnel move the spent fuel underwater from the reactor to the pool. Over time, as the spent fuel is stored in the pool, it becomes cooler as the radioactivity decays away. After several years (> 5 years), decay heat decreases under specified limits so that spent fuel may be reprocessed or interim storaged.

At first glance, it is difficult to recognize a fresh fuel from an used fuel. From mechanical point of view, the used fuel (irradiated) is identical as the fresh fuel. In most PWRs, used fuel assemblies stand between four and five metres high, are about 20 cm across and weighs about half a tonne. A PWR fuel assembly comprises a bottom nozzle into which rods are fixed through the lattice and to finish the whole assembly it is ended by a top nozzle. There are spacing grids between these nozzles. These grids ensure an exact guiding of the fuel rods. The bottom and top nozzles are heavily constructed as they provide much of the mechanical support for the fuel assembly structure. Western PWRs use a square lattice arrangement and assemblies are characterized by the number of rods they contain, typically, 17×17 in current designs. In contrast to the fresh fuel, which are simply shiny, the oxide layer forming on the surface of used fuel assemblies during the four-year fuel cycle makes them dark. Moreover,  Cherenkov radiation is typical only for spent nuclear fuel. The glow is visible also after the chain reaction stops (in the reactor). The cherenkov radiation can characterize the remaining radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel, therefore it can be used for measuring of fuel burnup.



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      2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
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      4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See above:

Nuclear Fuel