Fuel fabrication facilities convert enriched uranium hexafluoride UF6 into fuel for nuclear reactors. Fabrication also can involve mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which is a combination of uranium and plutonium components. NRC regulates several different types of nuclear fuel fabrication operations.
On this page:
- Light Water Reactor Low-Enriched Uranium Fuel
- Light Water Reactor Mixed Oxide Fuel
- Non-Power Reactor Fuel
- Other Types of Fuel Fabrication Facilities
- Safety Concerns at Fabrication Facilities
See Locations of Fuel Cycle Facilities for a list of fuel cycle facilities licensed by NRC.
Light Water Reactor Low-Enriched Uranium Fuel
Fuel fabrication for light (regular) water power reactors (LWR) typically begins with receipt of low-enriched uranium (LEU) hexafluoride (UF6) from an enrichment plant. The UF6, in solid form in containers, is heated to gaseous form, and the UF6 gas is chemically processed to form LEU 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, a fuel assembly may contain up to 264 fuel rods and have dimensions of 5 to 9 inches square by about 12 feet long. Three LEU fuel fabrication plants are currently licensed by the NRC: Global Nuclear Fuels-Americas in Wilmington, North Carolina; Westinghouse Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility in Columbia, South Carolina; and Areva, Inc., in Richland, Washington.
Typical Light Water Reactor Fuel Fabrication Facility
Light Water Reactor Mixed Oxide Fuel
MOX fuel differs from LEU fuel in that the powder from which the fuel pellets are pressed is a combination of uranium dioxide (UO2) and plutonium dioxide (PuO2). The NRC was directed by Congress to regulate the Department of Energy's (DOE's) fabrication of MOX fuel used for disposal of plutonium from international nuclear disarmament agreements. For more information about this fuel, 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 highly-enriched uranium (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.
Other Types of Fuel Fabrication Facilities
NRC also regulates some fuel fabrication facilities that have DOE contracts to produce fuel for the U.S. Naval Reactors program and to down-blend HEU with other uranium to create LEU 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.
Examples of this type of fuel fabrication facility is 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.
Safety Concerns at Fabrication Plants
Chemical, radiological, and criticality hazards at fuel fabrication facilities are similar to hazards at enrichment plants. Most at risk from these hazards are the plant workers. These facilities generally pose a low risk to the public.