Will Additive Manufacturing Power the Evolution of Nuclear Energy?18 January 2024
Report by Danny Weller
Fukushima. Chornobyl. Three Mile Island. All stark reminders that nuclear energy has the potential to be catastrophic. Stringent security measures are in place to prevent repeats of these disasters and the materials used in constructing reactor cores and nuclear fuel pellets are meticulously chosen. They must be robust enough to withstand the extreme environment of a nuclear reactor.
However, many experts believe that 3D printing technology is capable of creating these materials. Moreover, they underscore the pivotal role of 3D printing in expediting the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors and optimizing nuclear energy’s impact on addressing climate change.
“In the future, the nuclear industry may make extensive use of 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques, just as the aeronautical and automotive industries are already doing.” – Aninda Dutta Ray, Nuclear Engineer, International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA
Nuclear Energy: The Current State of Affairs
The global nuclear power industry has surged in recent years, emerging as the second-largest low-carbon power source worldwide. Data from the World Nuclear Association showcases its growth, boasting 438 operable reactors across 33 countries in 2019. Additionally, in 2020, nuclear electricity production reached 2,591 billion kWh, comprising 10.1% of total global electrical generation (U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA).
Nuclear reactor cores are traditionally constructed with the following materials for their component parts:
Fuel Pellets: These are primarily made of ceramic uranium oxide (UO2) or a mix of uranium and plutonium oxides. Sometimes, other fuels like mixed uranium-plutonium carbides or nitrides are used in advanced reactor designs.
Cladding: Zirconium alloys, like zircaloy, are commonly used for cladding fuel pellets. This material provides a protective barrier around the fuel and is resistant to corrosion at high temperatures.
Control Rods: Materials such as boron, silver, indium, and cadmium are used in control rods to absorb neutrons and control the fission reaction within the reactor.
These materials are selected for their ability to withstand high temperatures, maintain structural integrity, and control the nuclear reaction safely and efficiently.
Benefits of Additive Manufacturing for the Nuclear Power Industry
3D printing leverages digital designs and computer control to craft intricate shapes, previously challenging or unachievable. This innovative additive manufacturing method surpasses traditional techniques, boasting speed, minimized waste, error reduction, and the potential to reduce object weights. These attributes not only enhance production efficiency but also hold the promise of slashing manufacturing expenses significantly.
Additive manufacturing stands poised to revolutionize complex components and prototype production in the nuclear energy sector. Its rapid fabrication of intricate designs slashes lead times and cuts costs compared to traditional methods. This technology not only crafts specialized, durable, and precise parts critical for nuclear plant safety but also facilitates the creation of radiation-resistant materials and tools for maintenance and repair in radioactive environments.
With the escalating significance of nuclear power in the world energy market, the sector is actively embracing innovative technologies like additive manufacturing. Aninda Dutta Ray, a nuclear engineer working on advanced manufacturing at the IAEA highlighted, “The potential is certainly there [for the extensive use of 3D printing]. The first steps are well underway with intense research and reviews against existing nuclear design codes and standards being undertaken, while some regulators have even started drafting guidance for their licensees.”
Like many emerging manufacturing methods, initial strides in additive manufacturing within the nuclear sector have been small, slow, and cautious. Notable instances include the installation of a 3D-printed pump impeller at a Slovenian reactor in 2017. This crucial component, resembling a fan or turbine, propels water through the pump due to the unavailability of original drawings. Below are other significant implementations of additive manufacturing in the nuclear power industry:
ORNL 3D Printed Reactor
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), a leading figure in nuclear and 3D printing spheres, has spearheaded groundbreaking work intertwining additive manufacturing with nuclear power concepts. For instance, in May 2020, they unveiled a 3D metal-printed prototype of a reactor core using a DED machine. This initiative falls under the ‘Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration‘ (TCR) program, aiming for cost-effective and efficient energy systems in record time. Impressively, this reactor core was developed within a swift three-month timeline—from design to post-processing—requiring 40 hours of printing at extreme temperatures reaching 1,400°C.
Moreover, ORNL achieved a pioneering feat by 3D printing channel fastener brackets. Installed in a nuclear reactor in 2021, these brackets will endure until 2027 for a comprehensive evaluation of their performance under reactor conditions, marking a pioneering test in this domain.
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation in Collaboration with ORNL For Micro Reactors
Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, a prominent US-based nuclear company, is dedicated to developing and integrating safe, clean, and economically viable nuclear solutions. In a strategic move in 2022, the company announced a collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Their goal: harnessing ORNL’s additive manufacturing prowess, specifically Binder Jetting technology, to propel advancements in nuclear power. By employing this method, they aim to surmount challenges related to silicon carbide, a technical ceramic, streamlining costs and enabling intricate designs beyond conventional approaches
3D Printing Optimizes Nuclear Supply Chain
ČEZ, the largest public enterprise in Central and Eastern Europe, operates as a utility company with a pivotal nuclear division collaborating with Czech nuclear firm Škoda JS. Leveraging additive manufacturing, they’ve strategically optimized their supply chain and curbed downtime. In a single year, they’ve generated 4159 plastic and metal components through this cutting-edge technology.
Following disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions from the Ukraine conflict, ČEZ turned to additive manufacturing to address critical supply chain challenges. Employing a high-capacity printer capable of crafting metal parts weighing up to 600 kg, the company ensures swift replacements for faulty components. While conventional methods handle simpler geometries, additive manufacturing excels in crafting intricate parts like gearwheels.
Safety Critical Components in an Alabaman Reactor
The United States boasts 93 operational Nuclear Power Plants as per EIA data, including the Tennessee Valley Authority‘s (TVA) Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, ranking as the nation’s second most powerful nuclear facility situated in Athens, Alabama. Notably, TVA, Framatome, and the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy collaborated in the groundbreaking Transformational Challenge Reactor (TCR) program based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In 2021, they achieved a milestone by installing four pioneering 3D-printed fuel assembly brackets within Plant Unit 2, marking a pioneering venture in the nation’s nuclear landscape.
This groundbreaking project showcased the viability of deploying qualified 3D-printed components in highly regulated environments like nuclear reactors. The safety-critical brackets, crafted using laser powder bed fusion and TruForm 316 (Fe-271) alloy—comprising iron, nickel, chromium, and molybdenum—emphasized the feasibility of 3D printing in accommodating non-symmetric geometries for such crucial components.
Siemens in Slovenia: the Krško Plant
Siemens achieved a significant milestone in nuclear power with the creation of the first operational 3D-printed part for a nuclear plant. The groundbreaking component—an enduring 108-mm-diameter metal impeller for a fire pump—now operates seamlessly at Slovenia’s Krško nuclear power plant, entirely designed and additively manufactured by Siemens.
The adoption of additive manufacturing became pivotal due to the original impeller’s age since the plant’s inception in 1981, compounded by the unavailability of its original manufacturer. Siemens Slovenia ingeniously reverse-engineered and generated a ‘digital twin’ of the part, employing Metal Additive Manufacturing to reproduce it.
This pioneering project marks a significant stride for the Additive Manufacturing industry. It signifies the first instance where a 3D-printed part not only achieved safe operation but also successfully cleared all stringent nuclear power tests, showcasing its reliability within one of the most intricate and demanding industrial sectors.
The University of North Dakota Develops 3D-Printed Nuclear Reactors
Researchers at the University of North Dakota have embarked on an innovative project: crafting 3D-printed nuclear reactors fortified with reinforced steel. Led by Sougata Roy, a mechanical engineering professor, the team will utilize austenitic steel—an alloy bolstered with nitrogen—as the primary material for construction.
While specifics about the 3D printer remain undisclosed, the primary objective is to gauge the superior efficiency of these 3D-printed components compared to conventionally designed ones. Designing occurs at the University of North Dakota, while comprehensive analysis takes place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Testing will focus on assessing the tribological properties—pertaining to wear, friction, and lubrication—at elevated temperatures.
Westinghouse Forges Industry Firsts with 3D Printing
Continuing their focus on additive manufacturing, Westinghouse achieved another milestone two years later. They unveiled the StrongHold AM, a 3D-printed debris filter installed in Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) units in Finland and Sweden. These innovative filters boast enhanced capture capabilities, underscoring the firm’s significant stride in embracing additive manufacturing technology.
3D Printing Implemented at French Nuclear Firm Framatome
Framatome, the renowned French multinational, achieved a groundbreaking feat by installing the initial 3D-printed stainless steel fuel component at Sweden’s Forsmark nuclear power plant in 2022.
This milestone marks Framatome’s announcement of a pioneering 3D-printed stainless steel fuel assembly component. The successful installation of this top-end grid, crucial for securing fuel rods and accommodating sintered uranium dioxide pellets within metal tubes, signifies a significant advance. Notably, the component also serves to avert large debris from entering the fuel assembly, crafted using an unspecified 3D laser printing technology.
3D Printed Microreactor From Purdue University
Purdue University in Indiana, USA, secured an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to contribute to the development of a 3D-printed microreactor. Joining the Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration Program led by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Purdue aims to pioneer the first 3D-printed microreactor by 2024.
Purdue’s mission involves leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) technology to ensure the quality of additively manufactured nuclear reactor components. This innovative fusion of additive manufacturing and AI techniques promises a more efficient and data-rich process for validating nuclear components. Purdue University’s approach utilizes reinforcement learning, an advanced form of AI employing machine learning strategies to optimize additive manufacturing process parameters like printing speed and melting temperature. This methodology aims to expedite decision-making and enhance efficiency in creating these crucial components.
BWX Technologies’ Collaboration with ORNL
BWX Technologies and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have teamed up to develop advanced metal 3D printing technology specifically for manufacturing nuclear components. Their collaborative objective focuses on producing parts using high-temperature alloys derived from nickel and refractory metals, aiming to power nuclear reactors. BWX Technologies employs an electron beam melting system for 3D printing these crucial parts.
The selection of these materials enhances component durability, elevating resistance to temperatures reaching 1,482°C and boosting overall plant efficiencies to approximately 50%. Additionally, additive manufacturing drives cost reductions, particularly in part maintenance and repairs, and accelerates component prototyping stages.
Although 3D printing wasn’t initially designed for the nuclear sector, adaptations are underway to tailor manufacturing techniques to meet industry requirements. While industrial standards for 3D printing are well-established in other sectors, the nuclear industry is currently in the process of developing its specific standards.
The challenge, however, lies not only in innovating and perfecting manufacturing techniques but also in determining optimal testing methods, standardizing them globally, and securing regulatory approval. In Europe, the NUCOBAM (Nuclear Components Based on Additive Manufacturing) project, uniting 13 organizations across 6 European countries, is dedicated to researching and establishing the qualification and evaluation processes necessary for integrating 3D printing in nuclear power plants.
Similarly, in 2022, the IAEA initiated the Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative (NHSI), aimed at expediting the safe deployment of advanced nuclear reactors and small modular reactors (SMRs). This initiative focuses on aligning regulatory methods and fostering standardized industrial approaches. NHSI targets the development of unified nuclear codes and standards, particularly in additive manufacturing for SMRs.
Furthermore, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is collaborating with the US Department of Energy and manufacturers to conduct research aimed at simplifying the regulatory approval process for emerging technologies like 3D printing. This research focuses on exploring the viability of advanced manufacturing technologies, crafting codes and standards, and aiding regulatory evaluations through independent material performance tests against environmental degradation.
“The demand for alternative supply chains and accelerated deployment is increasing markedly as the energy industry continues to transition to advanced energy systems such as advanced reactors,” said Marc Albert, EPRI’s Principal Team Lead for advanced manufacturing projects. “Additive manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing methods are enablers to accelerate the deployment of the clean technologies.”
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