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Tickle College of Engineering

UT Tickle College of Engineering Leads New International Nuclear Materials Research Project

KNOXVILLE—Many lessons in nuclear energy safety were learned from the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant accident. One lesson includes the need for more oxidation resistant nuclear fuel cladding materials. Cladding is a metal casing that protects nuclear fuel pellets from the surrounding coolant in a fission reactor.

A University of Tennessee, Knoxville-based team has received a $3.5 million grant for a proposal to improve the currently used nuclear fuel cladding. This grant comes with matching funds for collaborative research efforts in the United Kingdom. Kurt Sickafus, head of the Department of Material Science and Engineering, will lead a team of 11 international institutions to engineer ceramic coatings that will prohibit the oxidation of nuclear fuel cladding, which in turn will minimize the possibility of nuclear reactor accidents. This award is part of the U.S. Department of Energy's 2012 Nuclear Energy University Programs (NEUP) Integrated Research Programs (IRP).

Most light-water nuclear reactors, commissioned over the last five decades, utilize zirconium-based alloys as the fuel rod cladding material. At high temperatures, these alloys tend to steal oxygen from the surrounding water and oxidize. In a high-temperature accident scenario, this oxidation reaction is accompanied by a release of large quantities of hydrogen gas. Accumulation of hydrogen gas in a reactor pressure vessel can lead to explosions, similar to what occurred during the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant accident. Preventing the oxidation of cladding alloys at high temperatures, while maintaining the inherent thermo-mechanical and nuclear properties of these materials, is the foremost objective of the global nuclear energy industry. If this objective is realized, this industry will achieve its ultimate goal, which is to effect the safe operation of nuclear power reactors, even under extreme conditions, including earthquakes combined with tsunamis.

The basic concept of the UT-led proposal is to protect zirconium alloy cladding by depositing thin layers of durable ceramic coatings on top of the metal cladding. The challenge is to fabricate ceramic coatings that resist evolution of hydrogen gas under high temperature accident conditions, while leaving the nuclear reaction chemistry of the reactor core, under standard operating conditions, more or less unchanged.

The team, which includes personnel (students, postdocs, research faculty, and professors) from the Materials Science and Engineering Department and from the Nuclear Engineering Department, will use experimental and computational methods to test their design. The experimental team will fabricate the ceramic coatings and run performance assessments. The modeling effort will include multi-scale modeling of the fuel and reactor core performance with ceramic coated fuel cladding, in addition to a systems level analysis.

Collaborating institutions include Pennsylvania State University, University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Michigan, Westinghouse Electric Company, Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of Manchester, University of Oxford, University of Sheffield, and University of Huddersfield.

The NEUP programs support multifaceted projects to develop breakthroughs for the U.S. nuclear energy industry. Universities lead the three-year projects, working in collaboration with the nuclear industry, national laboratories, and international partners.

For more information on the specific awards, visit


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