Fabrication Defects – Failure Mechanisms

Nuclear Fuel - TemperaturesFuel cladding is the outer layer of the fuel rods, standing between the reactor coolant and the nuclear fuel (i.e. fuel pellets). It is made of a corrosion-resistant material with low absorption cross section for thermal neutrons (~ 0.18 × 10–24 cm2), usually zirconium alloy. Cladding prevents radioactive fission products from escaping the fuel matrix into the reactor coolant and contaminating it. Cladding constitute one of barriers in ‘defence-in-depth‘ approach, therefore its coolability is one of key safety aspects.

Loss of Tightness of Fuel Cladding – Fuel Reliability

Cladding prevents radioactive fission products from escaping the fuel matrix into the reactor coolant and contaminating it. Emergence of a leak in that cladding results in:

  • the transport of specific chemical elements (fission products) that are stable, and radioactive (iodine, xenon, krypton…) into the reactor’s primary circuit
  • deposits of long-lived isotopes (cesium, strontium, technetium…), or even, in exceptional circumstances, of alpha emitters onto the piping of the primary circuit, or of ancillary circuits
  • an increase in the overall level of irradiation for that circuit, from the level already due to activation products (corrosion products, e.g. cobalt, chromium, iron in particular)

A leak thus poses a major challenge in operational terms, for a power plant operator, since it has a direct bearing on the level of radiological exposure workers are subjected to, when running the plant, or carrying out maintenance. Although fuel failures have rarely been a safety related issue, their impact on plant operational costs due to:

  • premature fuel discharge,
  • following cycle shortening,
  • possible unscheduled outages,
  • increased spent fuel volume

One of the necessary steps to reach the zero defect goal is to understand the root causes of the failures and their mechanisms, so that some corrective actions can be implemented, either through improvements in fuel design and fabrication by fuel suppliers, or operational changes, such as reduced power maneuvering.

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

Fabrication Defects – Failure Mechanisms

There are various fuel failure root causes, that have been identified in past. In the early dates of PWR and BWR operations, these causes were predominantly fabrication defects or fretting.

  • Fabrication defects
    • End-plug weld defects.
    • Cladding creep collapse. Cladding collapse can be caused by densification of the fuel pellets forming axial gaps in the pellet column resulted in collapse from outer pressure. Since creep is time dependent, full collapse typically occur at higher burnup. This type of failure can be eliminated through the use of pellets with moderate densification and pre-pressurization of rods.
    • Missing pellet surface

See also: IAEA, Review of fuel failures in water cooled reactors. No. NF-T-2.1. ISBN 978–92–0–102610–1, Vienna, 2010.

References:
Nuclear and Reactor Physics:
      1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
      2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
      3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
      4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
      5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
      6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
      7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
      8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

      1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
      2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
      3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2. 
      4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See above:

Fuel Cladding