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Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460

1st International Conference on Structural Integrity, ICONS-2014

Techniques for Assuring the Integrity of Fuel Pins for


Fast Reactors
Jose P Panakkal
Raja Ramanna Fellow, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai 400085.
E-mail ID: jpanakkal@yahoo.com

Abstract

The integrity of the nuclear fuel pins is of paramount importance from the point of view of safe and efficient operation of nuclear
reactors. The fissile fuel pellets are loaded in thin clad tubes and closed by welding of end plugs at both the ends. The integrity of
the final fuel pin fabricated is ensured by employing a number of techniques, both destructive and non-destructive at different
stages of fabrication. The specifications of the raw materials used, intermediate products and the final product are very carefully
made by the designers in consultation with the manufacturers and quality control personnel. The starting feed materials used for
fabricating the hardware viz .clad tubes, end plugs, spacer wire and spring are subjected to rigorous quality control checks so that
the products meet the design criteria and withstand safely the operating conditions. The material, dimensions, physical,
mechanical and chemical characteristics of the clad material are specified considering the time to be spent by the fuel pin in the
reactor and the adverse conditions like radiation, temperature, pressure to which the fuel pin is subjected. A number of quality
control checks are carried out to assure that the hardware meet the required parameters.

Uranium - Plutonium mixed oxide (MOX), enriched Uranium dioxide fuel, Plutonium - Uranium Carbide (MC) pellets are
commonly used as fuel for fast reactors. MOX fuel is made from a mixture of Uranium dioxide and Plutonium dioxide as the
starting material. The specifications of initial powders, blended powder, green pellets and sintered pellets are carefully drawn so
that the integrity of the fuel pin is not endangered in the reactor. A number of non-destructive evaluation techniques have been
devised and adopted at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre during the manufacture of MOX and MC pellets for Prototype Fast
Breeder Reactor (PFBR) and Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR). The accepted fuel pellets are encapsulated in first end plug
welded tubes after degassing. The integrity of the welding of the end plugs depends on the welding procedures adopted. The
evaluation techniques should be chosen such that the quality of the welds is ensured. The strength, penetration, freedom from
defects, leak tightness, dimensions and color are the major parameters checked. The welds are subjected to a number of checks
before wire wrapping. The quality of wire wrap welds is also ensured by suitable methods.

The fuel pins are subjected to metrological inspection( length, diameter, bow). Even though the fuel pins are fabricated as per the
approved plans, the designers would still like to have a final check on the correct loading of the hardware and fuel pellets in the
correct order. A number of non-destructive evaluation techniques have been developed specially for mixed oxide and mixed
carbide fuel pins which ensures loading of pellets of required composition and hardware components in the correct order.
Loading of pellets of wrong composition, absence of pellets or hardware and presence of wrong component affect the integrity
of the fuel pin during operation.

1877-7058 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).
Peer-review under responsibility of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research
doi:10.1016/j.proeng.2014.11.058
Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460 453

An attempt has been made in this presentation to bring out various factors affecting the integrity of the fuel pins in the reactor.
The steps taken by different agencies, viz. designers, fabricators and quality control personnel are described. The techniques used
for assuring the integrity of the fuel pins are presented. Special emphasis has been given to new non-destructive evaluation
techniques developed for fuel pins containing plutonium .
2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license
2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).
Peer-review under responsibility
Peer-review under responsibility of
of the
the Indira
Indira Gandhi
Gandhi Centre
Centre for
for Atomic
Atomic Research
Research.

Keywords: Fuel pin, Plutonium, MOX, Fast reactors, Non-destructive evaluation, integrity

1.0 Introduction

The structural integrity of the fuel pins in nuclear reactors is ensured by adopting proper fabrication
procedures with adequate process and quality control checks at different stages of manufacture of the fuel. Any
breach in the integrity of the fuel pin during the operation of the reactor results in the release of radioactive fission
products into the primary coolant circuit contaminating components like pumps, heat exchangers and others. The
neutron flux in fast reactors is nearly two times higher compared to thermal reactors causing material problems like
void swelling, irradiation creep and helium embrittlement. In Sodium Cooled Fast Reactors (SCFRs), Uranium-
Plutonium mixed oxide fuel is not compatible with liquid Sodium. During the operation of the reactors, a number of
changes occur in the fuel and the clad tube.. Fuel restructuring, fuel swelling leading to Pellet Clad Mechanical
Interaction( PCMI), chemical interaction due to redistribution of fission products and changes in the mechanical
properties of clad tubes play significant role in fuel pin failure.[1,2] With increased burn up in the commercial fast
reactors, the internal pressure of the fuel pin increases due to release of fission gases, swelling of fuel pellets and
PCMI . Further, increase in neutron fluence will result in void swelling and irradiation creep of the clad tube. The
structural integrity of the fuel pins is therefore assured by the fuel fabricator by employing suitable techniques. A
variety of techniques, destructive and non-destructive have been developed and are being used to assure the integrity
of nuclear fuel pins. This paper brings out factors affecting structural integrity of the fuel pin and the quality control
techniques followed at various stages of manufacture of fuel for fast reactors with emphasis on new non-destructive
evaluation techniques developed.

2.0 Different Stages of Manufacture of Fuel

Sufficient care should be taken at each stage of fabrication of the fuel starting from the choice of material
of hard ware, specification of the intermediate and final products, , characteristics of the fuel feed materials ,
pellets, internal components, end plug welds, spacer wire, dimensions , destructive and non-destructive evaluation
techniques at each stage for assuring the quality of the end product.

2.1 Hardware

A schematic of a typical fast reactor fuel pin is presented in Fig 1. The hardware consists of thin clad tube,
middle plug, end plugs, plenum spring and spacer wire. The material of the hardware is chosen considering the
environment seen by the component and the time spent in the reactor. The effect of irradiation due to higher fluence
in fast reactors resulting in void swelling, chemical attack of the fission products on the inside surface of cladding
and pellet clad mechanical interaction have to be considered for the choice of material and dimensions. The fuel pin
should be able to withstand the internal pressure developed inside the fuel pin during irradiation and contain the
fission products within the fuel pin.
454 Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460

Fig 1 Schematic
S of PFBR fuel pin

A number of alloys have been developed / tried for the clad material of fuel pins for fast reactor like CW
W SS316, D9
(Titanium modified SS316) , ferritic steel HT 9 , precipitation hardened (PH) high Nickel alloy such as Nimonic
N PE
16 and Oxygen Dispersion Strengthened ferriticc steel (ODS) .

2.2 Clad Tubes

The material of the clad tube is chosenn by the fuel designer after considering all the aspects inncluding the
irradiation experience. The chemical and mechanical
m properties and dimensions are specified affter careful
consideration. Appropriate quality control techhniques are employed to make sure that the clad tubes meet m all the
specifications. The method of fabrication of the starting ingot and the intermediate products and the clad tubes is
specified in detail. The process control and quaality control checks are also carried out at different stagess so that the
clad tubes meet the requirement of dimensions, chemical composition, metallurgical and mechanical properties. The
tube hollows are subjected to penetrant testingg. The clad tubes are subjected to various non-destructiv ve tests like
ultrasonic and eddy current testing so that the tuubes are free of defects bigger than allowed.

2.3 Other Hardware Components

The other components viz. end pluggs springs, spacer wire spring support and middle plugs are also
manufactured following the recommended practtice and inspection at different stages so that the final pro
oducts meet
the specified dimensions , physical , chemiical and metallurgical properties. The tubes with the middlem plug
crimped are also subjected to various checks.

3.0 Fuel

Uranium dioxide powder and Plutonium m dioxide powder are the starting material for Uranium Plutonium
Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel for fast reactors. Enriched Uranium dioxide powder is also used in some of the fast
reactors. Uranium dioxide , Plutonium oxide annd graphite are the starting materials for mixed carbide fuel
f used as
driver fuel in Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTRR) situated at Kalppakkam, Physical characteristics like particle
p size,
surface area and bulk density, isotopic content and chemical characteristics are also specified based on
n nucleonic,
reactor physics, metallurgical and chemical coonsiderations. The ceramic fuel pellets are made from the starting
powders using powder metallurgy process consisting
c of mixing, milling, pre-compaction, granullation, final
compaction and sintering at high temperature. The fabrication flow sheet of mixed oxide fuel for Pro ototype Fast
Breeder Reactor being constructed at Kalppakkaam is presented in Fig.2.[3,4]
Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460 455

Fig.2 Flow sheet of fabrication


f of PFBR fuel

The techniques used for checking the main chharacteristics of the mixed powder and pellets and techniq
ques used are
given below.

3.1 Mixed Powder.

It is desirable to have a process controol check for verifying that mixing is done properly. A non
n-destructive
assay technique using Neutron Well Coinccidence counting(NWCC) has been developed for ch hecking the
composition (Fig.3) and is being used at Advaanced Fuel Fabrication Facility, BARC Tarapur which manufacture
MOX fuel for reactors in India[5].

Fig 3 Correlation between NWCC and chemical analysis


456 Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460

3.2 Sintered Pellets.

The following characteristics are of importance from the point of view of the structural integrity.

3.2.1Chemical: Composition, O/M ratio, impurities

The composition of the fuel is decided after taking into account a number of factors like heat rating,
dimensions of the pellets, pellet clad gap, burn up and so on. O/M ratio affects fuel/clad and fuel coolant
compatibility, thermal conductivity , melting point, chemical reactivity , fuel plasticity, U-Pu redistribution and
corrosion of the clad during irradiation . The pellets are also chemically analysed for metallic and non-metallic
impurities to ensure that they do not adversely affect the behaviour during the reactor operation. Checks like
dissolution test, total gas and so on are also carried out. All these checks are however destructive and done on
sample basis.

3.2.2 Physical: Dimensions, Density, Linear mass, Physical integrity, Plutonium homogeneity

The diameter and the physical integrity of the pellets are checked on a 100% basis using a semi automated
pellet inspection/sorting machine[6](Fig.4). The homogeneity of Pu distribution and presence of PuO2
agglomerates more than the allowed size are checked by Alpha autoradiography on samples . Noncompliance of
these parameters may lead to conditions resulting in clad breach.

Fig 4. Inspection of pellets

3.3 Encapsulation

The fuel pellets and the other hardware after inspection are loaded into the first end plug welded clad tubes
before the final welding and the pins are decontaminated.

3.3.1End plug welds

The soundness of the end plug welds is crucial to maintain the structural integrity of the fuel pins in the
reactor. A number of steps like qualification of the welding machine, process and welding operator are followed by
the fuel manufacturer. Destructive tests are also carried out on the welded pins to assure the strength of the welds
while finalizing the welding parameters and the end plug design. The soundness of the weld is checked by non-
destructive techniques to ensure that the welds are free from defects like lack of penetration, lack of fusion, wall
Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460 457

thinning, tungsten inclusion and porosity. Detailed studies have been made to assess the impact of minor defects
like root pocket on the strength of the weld[7]. Helium leak testing using mass spectrometer type leak detectors with
high sensitivity, X radiography, visual examination and dimensional inspection are carried out. Techniques using
specially designed shape correction blocks, micro-densitometry and defect standard are being used to estimate the
defects detectable in radiography. Of late X-ray imaging with flat panel detector and micro-focal radiography (Fig.5
) and ultrasonic testing have been developed [ 8,9 ]. Imaging of the end-plug welds with flat panel detector and
micro-focal radiography has now been now adopted at AFFF, BARC, Tarapur for inspection of PFBR end-plug
welds.

Fig 5 X-ray imaging of end plug welds

3.4 Final Checks on the Fuel Pins

Even if the fuel manufacturer follows the approved procedures scrupulously during the manufacture of the
fuel, there is a distinct but small probability that the components are not loaded correctly in the fuel pin. It would be
ideal to have a number of non-destructive evaluation techniques at the final stage to verify the following
parameters.

Composition of the pellets loaded is as per design.


Order of loading the fuel pellets and axial blankets is correct.
Correct loading of the fuel stack, hardware components.
Presence of PuO2 agglomerates.
Chipping of the pellets.

3.4.1 X radiography

X radiograph of the pin shows clearly the hardware components and fuel stack containing both uranium
and plutonium. It however cannot distinguish between UO2 pellets and MOX pellets and also give information
about the composition. It can also detect major chipping of the pellets.

3.4.2 Neutron radiography

Neutron radiography gives the required information about UO2 and MOX pellets, Pu O2 composition,
presence of agglomerates and chipping and clearly distinguishes annular pellets from solid pellets.[10 ] . However,
neutron radiography of all the fuel pins after fabrication is not a practical proposition.
458 Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460

3.4.3 X-Gamma autoradiography(XGAR)

X-Gamma autoradiography (XGAR) iss routinely used in Indian Plutonium based fuel fabricatio on plants for
inspection of all the fuel pins. Mixed Carbide fuel
f pins loaded in Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) , Kalppakkam
K
and MOX fuel pins for PFBR which are beingg manufactured at Advanced Fuel Fabrication Facility , Tarapur are
subjected to XGAR [11]. Figures 6 and 7 show w XGAR of PFBR and FBTR fuel pins. XGAR revealss loading of
pellets of wrong composition, images insulationn/blanket pellet and MC/MOX pellets and hardware.


Fig 6 X
XGAR of FBTR and PFBR pins

Fig 7 Colour XGAR showing MOX and UO2 stack

3.4.4 Passive Gamma Scanning

Passive gamma scanning is another check which quickly gives quantitative information n about the
composition of the pellets and also about the preesence and size of PuO2 agglomerates in PFBR fuel pin loaded with
annular MOX pellets of diameter 5.5mm.[122,13 ]. The use of annular Sodium Iodide scintillation detector
Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460 459

improved the sensitivity to count the radiation emitted by Plutonium as evident from the gamma scans carried out at
AFFF on PBFR fuel pins.( Fig.8). It is possible to detect very small compositional variation (0.15% absolute in
(0.79U-0.21Pu)O2 pellets and pure PuO2 agglomerate( 500m ) located in the periphery of the pellets in the welded
pin.


Fi6

a) FBTR MOX fuel pin b) PFBR fuel pin

Fig 8 Gamma scans of a MOX fuel pin

3.5 Checks on Wire Wrap Welds

The spot welds of wire wrap with the plug is checked by metallography and visual examination.

3.6 Metrology

The length and diameter of the individual pin play an important role in the stress developed on the fuel
element and other components which will finally affect the integrity of the fuel pins.

3.7 Visual Examination of the Fuel Pin

The surface of the fuel pin is subjected to visual examination under proper illumination conditions. The
pins are inspected for any dents or deep marks which will affect the life of the fuel pins in the reactor.

3.8 Transport

The fuel pins after fabrication are transported to reactor site for assembly and loading into the reactor. The
fuel pins are transported as per IAEA approved guidelines in specially designed pin magazines loaded in bird cages
so that the integrity of the fuel pins remains in tact.

3.9 Conclusion

An attempt has been made in this paper to bring out the various factors to be considered for assuring the
structural integrity of fuel pins for the fast reactors. The steps taken during the manufacture of fuel pin components
and the fuel pins for this purpose are highlighted. A number of destructive and non-destructive testing methods used
during the manufacture of fuel pins are described. A number of new techniques developed for non-destructive
evaluation of fuel containing Plutonium are also presented. The use of multiple /complimentary non-destructive
460 Jose P. Panakkal / Procedia Engineering 86 (2014) 452 460

evaluation techniques are used at the final stage of fabrication of the fuel pins to give confidence to fuel designers,
fabricators and quality control personnel about the fuel pins loaded in the reactor.

Acknowledgement

The author would like to thank his colleagues at Advanced Fuel Fabrication Facility, Tarapur and
Radiometallurgy Division, BARC for their active collaboration and help during this work. The author would also
like to acknowledge the financial support provided by Department of Atomic Energy, (DAE), Mumabi for
participating in this conference.

References

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