The first 3D printed parts were installed at the Alabaman nuclear power plant

Last week, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) announced that four 3D-printed fuel assembly racks had been installed and are operating at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Unit 2 in Athens, Alabama. The 3D printed parts mark a next step in the work of the ORNL with 3D printing as well as the current Transformational Challenge Reactor or TCR program, which is also based in the ORNL. Thoroughly tested and checked before installation, the parts are safety-critical and are expected to be used for the next six years.

The project was a collaboration with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Framatome (a nuclear reactor company) and of course the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy-funded Transformational Challenge Reactor (TCR), which is based at the ORNL. The goal of making the 3D printed parts, as longtime readers may suspect, is to help develop the technology used in nuclear power plants, ultimately increasing the profitability of the nuclear power plant fleet in the United States. There are currently 56 nuclear power plants in 28 states, though they have shrunk since their peak in the early 2000s.

A 3D printed part for a nuclear component

A 3D = faster printed channel for the fuel element of the Framatome boiling water reactor. Four of these components were installed at the TVA Browns Ferry nuclear power plant (Photo credit: Framatome)

The program hopes to revolutionize the nuclear industry in the United States, but it is also a significant advance for 3D printing as it proves its continued viability for critical components. Ben Betzler, added to the TCR program directory at ORNL: “The use of 3D-printed components in a reactor application is a major milestone. It shows that it is possible to deliver qualified components in a highly regulated environment. This program combines fundamental and applied science and technology to deliver tangible solutions that show how advanced manufacturing can transform reactor technology and components. “

The 3D printed nuclear components

The parts are safety locks, ie they are safety-critical components for the reactor. Each part was made using Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF) and a metal powder, a technology that is also popular in industries like aerospace, especially aerospace. The researchers mentioned in the press release that the duct fixings are ideal for a very first additive manufacturing application for use in a nuclear reactor because they are simple but not symmetrical. This makes it ideal for AM, as parts made with AM technologies can have more complex geometries, including asymmetrical parts.

To make the part, the researchers used computational topography to optimize the part at all points, including critical parts. The various test stages were particularly important in the manufacture of these parts. As seen in the video, they used CT scans to characterize the material, optical and scanning microscopy, and spatial tracking of the data to compare it to the traditionally produced material. With regard to other safety measures, the team particularly pointed out the digitization of the parts, which made it possible to analyze the part with artificial intelligence in order to find all possible defects.

The brackets were installed in April and will remain in the reactor for the next six years, with regular inspections scheduled to ensure optimal operation. If you want to learn more, you can watch the video below or read the press release HERE.

ORNL develops and deploys 3D printed reactor components

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* Thumbnail Image Credits: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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