Fuels for the final frontier

Posted: December 8, 2014 - 4:51pm

The NNSA Production Office at Y-12 struck an agreement earlier this year with NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, to support the design of a small nuclear-powered reactor with potential to lead to small fission power reactors for future space exploration missions.

For the first phase of the project, Y-12 will research materials and manufacturing processes for a physics demonstration of a kilowatt-range nuclear reactor, known as project Kilopower, using an enriched uranium-molybdenum metallic fuel core and a lithium-hydride shield. The Kilopower concept was a 2013 R&D 100 Award winner for proof-of-principle experiments performed at the National Criticality Experiments Research Center in Nevada led by Los Alamos National Laboratory in collaboration with NASA Glenn and National Security Technologies.

"Science missions are seeking greater power and functionality," explained Lee Mason, chief of the Thermal Energy Conversion Branch at Glenn. "We're planning to demonstrate the technology in a ground test using a prototype U-235 reactor core."

The project will build on successful proof-of-concept testing conducted at the Nevada National Security Site in 2012. This past year, Y-12 provided technical R&D to support the reactor design process and material compatibility studies. Upcoming tasks include Y-12 manufacturing and supplying both depleted- and enriched-uranium reactor core prototypes for testing. The NASA Kilopower project calls for Y-12 to deliver the U-235 reactor core to the National Criticality Experiments Research Center by the end of Fiscal Year 2016. Critical experiments utilizing the Kilopower reactor core will be performed in FY 2017 under the auspices of the DOE Nuclear Criticality Safety Program working with NASA.

"Glenn came to Y-12 because we have the best uranium and lithium processing and materials experts in the country," John Creasy, program manager for Advanced Reactor & Materials Design, said. "We'll help Glenn by sharing that expertise, particularly as it relates to uranium alloy fuel development and lithium production capabilities."

During the past year, scientists, engineers and program managers from NASA HQ; NASA Glenn; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; NASA Marshall Space Flight Center; Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; Idaho National Laboratory; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Los Alamos National Laboratory; NNSA HQ, DOE Office of Nuclear Energy; Ohio State University; Advanced Cooling Technologies, Inc.; and Sunpower, Inc. have visited Y-12 for meetings, tours and technical interchange with subject-matter experts from Engineering, Development, Production and Program Integration.

"Our NASA and DOE guests have all been very impressed with the production capabilities and the technical interchange they had with our experts," said Chris Robinson, director of Y-12's Nuclear Materials Initiatives. "Although the overall reactor concept and design are fairly new, the Y-12 scope is very much within our manufacturing capabilities and our core competencies."

"This type of project helps to ensure that Y-12 remains an enduring national asset and to strengthen and sustain a relevant and productive work force as the designated Uranium Center of Excellence for the National Nuclear Security Administration," Robinson said. "We're excited to work with NASA and share our nuclear and special materials expertise."

Creasy and Robinson were invited participants on a NASA Systems Study Team with the first meeting recently occurring. The Team, along with a Mission Study Team, was chartered to deliver back trade studies, mission and system studies, and operational and infrastructure reports to NASA's Nuclear Power Systems Assessment Executive Council to support their conclusions. The overall objective of the NPSA EC was to identify opportunities and challenges for safe, reliable and affordable nuclear power systems that enable NASA missions and can be applied to NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate needs in the next 20 years.

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