Fuel Fabrication

Fuel fabrication facilities convert enriched uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors. Fabrication also can involve mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which is a combination of uranium and plutonium. NRC regulates several different types of nuclear fuel fabrication operations.

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See Locations of Fuel Cycle Facilities for a list of fuel cycle facilities licensed by NRC.

Fuel fabrication for light water reactors (LWR) (regular commercial power reactors) typically begins with the receipt of low-enriched uranium, in the chemical form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), from an enrichment plant. The UF6, in solid form in containers, is heated to gaseous form, and then the UF6 gas is chemically processed to form uranium dioxide (UO2) powder. This powder is then pressed into pellets, sintered into ceramic form, loaded into Zircaloy tubes, and constructed into fuel assemblies. Depending on the type of light water reactor—whether it's a boiling-water reactor or a pressurized-water reactor—a  fuel assembly may contain up to 264 fuel rods and have dimensions of 5 to 9 inches square by about 12 to 14 feet long.

Typical Light Water Reactor Fuel Fabrication Facility
Typical Fuel Fabrication Plant

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Category I Fuel Fabrication Facilities

Category I facilities can possess a formula quantity of SNM, as defined in 10 CFR 70.4, "Definitions." NRC regulates fuel fabrication facilities that have government contracts to produce fuel for the U.S. Naval Reactors program and to down-blend highly-enriched uranium (HEU) with other uranium to create low-enriched uranium reactor fuel. The HEU being blended down to lower enrichment comes from Russian or U.S. weapons programs as part of an international arms control agreement.

Two Category I fuel fabrication plants are currently licensed by the NRC: Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) in Erwin, Tennessee and the BWXT Nuclear Operations Group plant in Lynchburg, Virginia. These facilities produce nuclear fuel containing both high-enriched and low-enriched uranium.

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Category II Fuel Fabrication Facilities

Category II facilities can possess special nuclear material of moderate strategic significance as defined in 10 CFR 70.4, "Definitions." Several of the new proposed high-assay low-enriched uranium fuel fabrication applications will be to license Category II facilities.  These include applications such as TRISO-X LLC, Kairos Power Atlas Fuel Fabrication Facility, Ultra Safe Nuclear, etc.

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Category III Fuel Fabrication Facilities

Category III facilities can possess special nuclear material of low strategic significance as defined in 10 CFR 70.4, "Definitions."  Three fuel fabrication plants processing low-enriched uranium are currently licensed by the NRC: Global Nuclear Fuel-Americas in Wilmington, North Carolina; Westinghouse Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility in Columbia, South Carolina; and Framatome, Inc., in Richland, Washington.

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Nonpower Reactor Fuel

Nonpower reactors are small reactors that do not generate electrical power but are used for research, testing, and training. Nonpower reactors can include research reactors and reactors used to produce irradiated target materials. The fuel design varies with the reactor type and manufacturer. Plate-type fuel consists of several thin plates containing a uranium mixture clad with aluminum. Another fuel is in the shape of rods and consists of a uranium and zirconium/hydride mixture. There are also compact, self-contained, low-power (less than 5 watts) tank-type reactors.

The size of a nonpower reactor can be reduced when HEU fuel is used. Due to concerns related to the physical protection and proliferation of the material, the NRC maintains regulations to discourage the use of HEU fuel. More information can be obtained at 10 CFR 50.64.
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Safety Concerns at Fabrication Plants

Chemical, radiological, and criticality hazards are the primary concerns at fuel fabrication facilities. In the case of an accident, the plant workers have a greater chance of being impacted then the public. These facilities generally pose a low risk to the public. NRC regulations, including the use of the Integrated Safety Analysis, intend to mitigate or reduce the chance of events.

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