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.
On this page:
- Low-Enriched Uranium Fuel Fabrication Facilities
- Category 1 Fuel Fabrication Facilities
- Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication
- Non-Power Reactor Fuel
- Safety Concerns at Fabrication Facilities
See Locations of Fuel Cycle Facilities for a list of fuel cycle facilities licensed by NRC.
Low-Enriched Uranium Fuel Fabrication Facilities
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.
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 AREVA, Inc., in Richland, Washington. These facilities are also called Category 3 Fuel Facilities.
AREVA Lynchburg was a fuel fabrication facility that had operated under NRC purview and was located in Lynchburg, VA. In March 2011, AREVA shipped the last of their completed fuel assemblies to their customers. The company removed as much uranium contamination as reasonably achievable and currently uses the facility for byproduct material under an Agreement State license. Inspection Reports and Licensee Performance Reviews provide a record of enforcement and safety inspections conducted by the NRC.
Typical Light Water Reactor Fuel Fabrication Facility
Category 1 Fuel Fabrication Facilities
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 1 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.
Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication
MOX fuel differs from low-enriched uranium fuel in that the powder used to form fuel pellets is comprised of both uranium dioxide (UO2) and plutonium dioxide (PuO2). The MOX fuel will be used in light-water reactors. The NRC was directed by Congress to regulate the Department of Energy's (DOE) fabrication of MOX fuel. The creation of MOX fuel provides a constructive use for the plutonium resulting from international nuclear disarmament agreements. See also, NRC's Support to U.S. Nonproliferation Objectives. For more information about this fuel and a description of the licensing process, see Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility Licensing.
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.
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.