Thursday, October 29, 2015
Areva employees Ken Carpenter, left, and Lee Perez test fit components of a nuclear fuel rod assembly that will be used in a Connecticut nuclear power plant. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald
Richland’s Areva fuels the nation Tri-Cities’ largest manufacturer creates nuclear fuel rods KRISTI PIHL TRI-CITY HERALD
ichland’s Areva is a quiet giant in electricity production. Fuel rods made by the Tri-City area’s largest manufacturer are used to create about 5 percent of the nation’s energy. Each rod’s diameter is slightly narrower than a dime, but is 12 to 14 feet long. And it’s made to withstand the environment of a nuclear reactor and produce energy for about six years. Most of the Richland’s plant 700 employees are dedicated to helping make about 200,000 fuel rods a year for use in nuclear utilities in North America and the Pacific Rim. The Richland facility is one of three Areva fuel fabrication plants around the world. The other two are in France and Germany. The company also is a partner
in a number of fuel fabrication facilities. “Areva is the largest nuclear supplier in the world,” said Ron Land, Areva senior vice president. Richland has been home to a nuclear fuel producer for the past 45 years, but the site now belonging to Areva has been owned by more than a half-dozen companies. Areva bought the Richland fuel fabrication facility in 2001 and started modernizing the plant. The result, Land said, is a state of the art facility on the world stage. The Richland site includes about 40 buildings and facilities on about 47 acres. The buildings cover about 400,000 square feet. The basic recipe for making nuclear fuel has remained about the same, but how it is done hasn’t. New technology is being used, including some developed by Richland employees through the years.
Some of that technology is considered the best practice for worldwide nuclear fuel production. “We are very proud of our technology here,” Land said. “It is all aimed at improving safety, improving quality, reducing the impact to the environment.” Each batch of fuel is custom made to fit the requirements of the utility that will use the fuel, Land said. In some cases, the way the fuel rods are assembled appears the same, but the levels of uranium within the fuel rods are different. “We build all kinds of nuclear fuel,” said Barry Tilden, Richland operations manager. Areva starts out with an enriched form of uranium called uranium hexafluoride. The uranium is enriched elsewhere and transported to the Richland facility in cylinders. Each can carry about 2.5 tons of uranium hexafluoride. At that stage, the uranium is at such a low level of radioactivity that someone could hold it in his or her hand and be
fine, Land said. The enriched uranium is chemically changed using a dry conversion process into a uranium dioxide powder. The dry conversion process was among those invented at the Richland site, and is better when it comes to economics, environment and safety, Land said. The powder is pressed into pellets no more than an inch long. The pellets go through a sintering furnace for about eight hours, bringing them higher than 1,500 degrees C, holding them at that temperature, and then cooling them down. That bonds the powder together. The pellets are loaded into the fuel rods by a machine that vibrates and shakes the pellets into the rods. Helium gas is inserted into the rods before the open end is welded shut. The company’s high tech machine shop also makes the structural parts needed for nuclear fuel rods assemblies using computer-controlled robotics, See AREVA | Page 23