Fuel 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
Pellet-cladding interaction – PCI
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. Failures due to PCI are typical for power changes, rod movement and plant startup. They usually occur within a few hours or days following a power ramp or control rods movement. This results especially in startup ramp rate restrictions.
See also: IAEA, Review of fuel failures in water cooled reactors. No. NF-T-2.1. ISBN 978–92–0–102610–1, Vienna, 2010.