The Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) has announced plans to locate its pilot fuel manufacturing (PFM) operations in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in close proximity to the US Department of Energy’s (DoE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
USNC’s new facility will leverage the specialized workforce and capabilities of ORNL and the nearby DoE National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 National Security Complex to ramp up the development of advanced nuclear fuel solutions, including the use of additive manufacturing.
“Proximity to ORNL and Y-12, as well as access to east Tennessee’s highly skilled and motivated nuclear workforce, was a key consideration in our site selection,” said Kurt Terrani, Executive Vice President of USNC’s Core Division.
“The excellent support we received from Tennessee Department of Community & Economic Development as well as Tennessee Valley Authority made the decision that much easier to site our PFM facility in Oak Ridge.”
Benefiting from ORNL’s capabilities
Headquartered in Seattle, USNC is a global leader in the development of microreactors and nuclear power technologies. In January, the company announced it had licensed ORNL’s novel method to 3D print components for nuclear reactors using refractory metals such as silicon carbide.
ORNL’s technology combines binder jet 3D printing with a chemical vapor infiltration process that enables the more efficient fabrication of reactor components with greater complexities. Having licensed the method, USNC aims to drive forward its mission to develop and deploy safer nuclear-based energy-generating equipment that is also commercially competitive.
USNC manufactures its nuclear reactor core components from high-temperature-resistant ceramic silicon carbide, however machining reactor parts from this material is time-sensitive and inexpensive. ORNL’s 3D printing method will enable the company to manufacture silicon carbide components more efficiently and with geometries otherwise impossible to produce via conventional manufacturing methods.
According to ORNL Professors Kathy McCarthy and Xin Sun, the certification and qualification of 3D printed nuclear components is a key element to the technology’s wider adoption, and USNC’s licensing of ORNL’s additive manufacturing method marks a significant step forward for the technology within the nuclear space.
USNC’s PFM facility
USNC’s new PFM facility is located on an 8.7-acre site at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, just a few minutes away from ORNL’s main campus.
“As a national leader in clean, reliable nuclear energy, Tennessee plays a significant role in powering America and fueling our economy,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. “Our highly skilled workforce, strong business climate and local advantages make Oak Ridge the premier location for USNC, and I commend their decision to expand in Tennessee.”
The plant is expected to be operational this summer, and will primarily focus on manufacturing TRISO coated fuel particles and USNC’s proprietary Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM) nuclear fuel. The PFM facility will be capable of processing feedstock uranium powder into TRISO fuel particles in order to produce FCM fuel in multiple kilogram quantities.
The manufacturing modules and technologies deployed within the facility to meet these aims are based on smaller-scale systems originally developed under DoE programs at ORNL, and include the 3D printing process licensed from ORNL earlier this year.
Once codified and demonstrated, the manufacturing modules will be deployed into new production facilities to meet the demand for fueling USNC’s Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) and other terrestrial and space energy systems.
According to USNC, the proximity to ORNL and the continued cooperation between the two partners will be “highly instrumental” in USNC’s efforts to commercialize the technologies and establish a cost-effective advanced nuclear fuel supply chain.
“It’s great to see companies like USNC co-locating near the laboratory to further collaborations on nuclear fuel R&D efforts that benefit our community and are key to net-zero goals,” said McCarthy.
USNC has invested more than $12 million in the new PFM facility, with more funding expected to follow. The new facility is expected to create more than 30 highly skilled jobs within its first two years of operation.
“The investment of USNC in the PFM facility and other advanced manufacture facilities in the US indicates that the commercialization of our micro modular reactor is imminent,” said USNC’s CEO Francesco Venneri. “We’re reaching a key point in the evolution of the MMR, with a well-developed technology, the responsive engagement with regulators, and the demand from customers in multiple regions, where a firm commitment to establish a strong manufacturing base is warranted.
“The PFM facility is one extremely important step we are taking in this direction.”
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Featured image shows USNC has licensed ORNL’s novel additive manufacturing method to produce complex nuclear reactor components. Photo via Carlos Jones/ORNL.