Dr. Jerzy Szpunar (PhD), professor in USask’s College of Engineering
Dr. Jerzy Szpunar (PhD), professor in USask’s College of Engineering (Photo: USask)

USask explores small modular reactors fuel with federal funding

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) received $900,000 to explore new and more efficient uranium-based fuels for small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).

Dr. Jerzy Szpunar (PhD), a professor in USask’s College of Engineering specializing in advanced nuclear materials, and his team of researchers will use advanced simulations and experiments to evaluate the performance of uranium-based fuels adopted for Canadian SMR technology.

SMRs are nuclear energy producers that are small in size and intended to be factory-constructed and portable. Particularly in provinces like Saskatchewan, where providing energy to remote regions can be challenging, SMRs are potentially game-changing technology.

“SMRs are not only for generation of electricity, but the heat from the reactor can be used for many other applications,” Szpunar said. “Heating, water desalination and water treatment, hydrogen production ... we in Canada have a high number of small settlements, and transport of energy over long distances is expensive and complicated. That type of package of services related to SMR energy is of special interest.”

The research project received funding from a combination of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Natural Resources Canada through NSERC’s Alliance grants program, intended to support collaborations between Canadian university researchers and non-university institutions.

Szpunar’s research will delve into the fuels used to power SMRs, with particular interest to the GE-Hitachi design selected by SaskPower as a potential Saskatchewan SMR and the ARC-100 Clean Energy reactor proposed in New Brunswick. This research project will allow Szpunar and his team to analyze the performance of fuels and propose modifications of current fuels for both SMR reactors and also explore different fuel options for SMRs in Canada and beyond.

“We believe, especially in Saskatchewan where uranium is mined, the research on adding value to uranium export should be supported and that current SMR fuel designs can likely be replaced with ‘accident-tolerant fuels,’” Szpunar said. “These ATF fuels have improved thermo-mechanical properties and can reduce the likelihood of malfunctions or meltdowns of the of the reactor core.”

Szpunar said that due to the nature of SMRs, experimental testing is extremely difficult. He noted that his team has developed expertise in creating detailed computer simulations of fuel structure and performance while at high temperatures, exposed to radiation and corrosion environments.  No nuclear fuels will be physically tested at USask as part of this research.

He said that they are also interested in simulating the performance of metallic-based fuels – compounds like uranium nitride – to determine their overall potential benefits and risks. Metallic-based fuels have high thermal conductivity at high temperatures and can potentially reduce risks of meltdowns of the reactor core.

“The first step is predicting the behaviour of current fuels and suggesting modifications, and the second step is investigating the use of other fuels and cladding to improve the performance of selected SMR reactor,” he said.

Currently, Szpunar said that uranium-based SMR fuels will be purchased mainly from the United States. As 20 to 25 per cent of the world’s uranium is mined in Saskatchewan, exploring best practices for developing advanced SMR fuel could be of great benefit to the province’s economy.  

“We will be adding value to resources that are mined here,” he said. "I believe USask research should be a leader in this area.”

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