February 13, 2019

The next generation leading the way on the next evolution of nuclear fuel

Meet Destinee Rea, Ceramics Process Engineer at Framatome’s Richland, Washington, fuel manufacturing facility

Destinee Rea, Ceramics Process Engineer at Framatome

Every day, more than 400 employees pass through the doors at Framatome’s fuel fabrication facility in Richland, Wash., to oversee the safe, high-quality and on-time manufacturing and delivery of our world-class fuel products. But one employee, Destinee Rea, comes to work for something extra special.

In the face of headlines that paint a difficult picture for the nuclear industry, young engineers like Destinee aren’t deterred; she sees her career as an opportunity to revolutionize the industry – to develop new and innovative fuel designs and concepts that make the existing reactor fleet more reliable and efficient.

Framatome and its European partners have been working on just that for decades, collaborating and researching enhanced accident tolerant fuel, or EATF, concepts as part of our PROtect program. In 2012, following the Fukushima incident in 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched an industry-wide program, asking several major industry vendors to accelerate development of these concepts in the U.S. We focused on near-term solutions that involve enhancing nuclear fuel pellets and coating fuel rod cladding with chromium – a change that will increase the coping time inside a nuclear reactor, should an event similar to the Fukushima incident occur again. In 2016, the DOE prioritized between concepts and ideas put forth by the vendors, and the selected EATF designs were scheduled for deployment as lead fuel assemblies (LFAs) or lead fuel rods (LFRs) in commercial power reactors by 2022.

Little did Destinee know, when she signed on in 2016, that she’d help bring these EATF concepts to market. Almost immediately, she was thrust into the project as research and development (R&D) efforts were ongoing on the manufacturing floor with our Ceramics group. As process engineer in the Ceramics area where the team produces nuclear fuel pellets, Destinee’s involvement in the PROtect EATF program has focused on the qualification and production of chromia-enhanced fuel pellets.

Chromia-enhanced fuel pellets have a small amount of Cr2O3, or chromia, added to the current industry standard uranium dioxide (UO2) powder. This addition changes some properties of the fuel pellets to improve performance under accident conditions. It’s Destinee’s job to understand these changes and optimize the manufacturing fabrication process.

With the role came both challenge and opportunity. The challenge: understanding if we needed to modify our manufacturing process to produce these new pellets. The opportunity: learning from and making vital connections with international colleagues and partners with over a decade of R&D experience with EATF technology. She even visited Framatome’s Lingen, Germany, facility in early 2018.

In Lingen, Destinee got to witness the production of chromia-enhanced fuel pellets – and compare the differences between how our respective plants approach chromia enhanced pellet production, based on earlier research and differences in equipment. Process engineers in Lingen also helped answer questions that came up during her qualification tests.

Using Framatome’s standard UO2 pellet process as a baseline, Destinee and the Ceramics team worked with plant engineering and maintenance to modify equipment at the Richland plant, and performed production testing in 2017. Knowing that these pellets require altered parameters from typical UO2, she and the team even designed some test parameters, expecting the pellets to fall short of acceptable specifications. Imagine their excitement when the pellets performed better than they thought with all of the qualifications tests showing acceptable results!

Thanks to engineers like Destinee, the EATF project moves even closer to fruition. In the fall of 2018, our teams completed proof of fabrication for placing these chromia-enhanced pellets into chromium-coated fuel rods. Then in December, the Richland facility manufactured full-length lead fuel assemblies that will be inserted into a U.S. reactor this spring. This combination of chromia-enhanced pellets in full-length, chromium-coated rods will be the first complete, full-length fuel rod EATF concept in the world.

So what does Destinee take away from it all? Serving as the responsible engineer for the chromia-enhanced pellet qualification was a challenging, but enriching experience. As a young engineer and NAYGN member, she has fully embraced the learning experience and the opportunity to bring evolutionary fuel concepts to the nuclear industry.