nuclear fuel fabrication
(last edited in Summer 2009)
Plants in the USA
For use as nuclear fuel, enriched uranium hexafloride is converted into uranium dioxide (UO2) powder that is then processed into pellet form. The pellets are then fired in a high temperature sintering furnace to create hard, ceramic pellets of enriched uranium. The cylindrical pellets then undergo a grinding process to achieve a uniform pellet size. The pellets are stacked, according to each nuclear reactor core's design specifications, into tubes of corrosion-resistant metal alloy. The tubes are sealed to contain the fuel pellets: these tubes are called fuel rods. The finished fuel rods are grouped in special fuel assemblies that are then used to build up the nuclear fuel core of a power reactor.
The metal used for the tubes depends on the design of the reactor. Stainless steel was used in the past, but most reactors now use zirconium. For the most common types of reactors, boiling water reactors (BWR) and pressurized water reactors (PWR), the tubes are assembled into bundles with the tubes spaced precise distances apart. These bundles are then given a unique identification number, which enables them to be tracked from manufacture through use and into disposal.