Transformation of the Nuclear Energy Sector with 3D Printing

News from the 3D printing industry | 18 November 2021

“Let’s 3D print a nuclear reactor!”

3D printing something as huge as a nuclear reactor might sound absurd to some people who usually associate 3D printing with rapid prototyping.

Certainly, 3D printing was initially used to produce smaller versions of products so that they could be tested before manufacturers would massively produce them. However, the advancement of 3D printing technologies has allowed manufacturers to expand the range of materials for 3D printing and even utilize it on an industrial scale to fabricate parts that are as good as or even better than those manufactured through traditional methods. Recently, 3D printing has made some significant progress in the nuclear energy sector.

Recycling more nuclear waste with 3D-printed equipment

Public concerns about the nuclear energy sector revolve mostly around nuclear waste. Scientists have developed several methods to recycle up to 95% of the nuclear waste. The remaining 5% should be stored as long-term waste; however, 5% of nuclear waste has to be stored for hundreds of thousands of years, which is certainly not ideal in the long run.

In 2013, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) research center, managed to come up with a blueprint to recycle more nuclear waste. However, they faced the challenge of scaling the process from a laboratory setting to an industrial setting, a common challenge faced by scientists. In 2019, they leveraged 3D printing to design and produce devices called centrifugal contactors that allowed them to achieve the goal and prove that this process was indeed scalable.

The result enabled Argonne scientists to recycle more nuclear waste by 2%. This 2% of nuclear waste might seem miniscule; however, an increase in recycling nuclear waste by 2% actually significantly shortens the time required for radiotoxicity of nuclear waste to decrease from hundred of thousands years to a few hundred years. In addition, they discovered 2 more benefits of 3D printing. 

  • The 3D-printed contactors provide safeguard against nuclear proliferation
  • 3D printing offers parts flexibility for replacement of parts as they can just 3D print them whenever the parts fail. 

Printing components for nuclear power plants

In 2017, 3D printing had a breakthrough in the nuclear industry when a 3D printed part made by Siemens was successfully installed into a nuclear power plant. As the nuclear industry has perhaps one of the most stringent safety and reliability standards, this milestone certainly proved the stability and functionality of 3D-printed parts. The journey, however, did not stop there. 

Earlier this year, Additive Composite and Add North 3D, two Swedish 3D printing companies, released a new boron carbide filament with radiation-shielding property, paving the way for Westinghouse’s latest achievement. Recently, Westinghouse Electric, a nuclear power company based in the U.S, managed to install 3D-printed parts in a commercial power plant.

As suggested by Ken Canavan, CTO of Westinghouse, and Ken Petersen, the Vice President of Nuclear Fuels at Exelon Nuclear, 3D printing allowed them to design components with better performance and lower costs than those traditionally manufactured or components that cannot be fabricated using traditional methods. 

Printing a nuclear reactor core with better performance and lower cost

In search of more economic and rapid methods to generate low-carbon energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is now building a microreactor using 3D printing after printing a submersible hull, which is approximately as big as a micr-reactor, in 2017.  

The Transformational Challenge Reactor (TCR) Demonstration Program of ORNL aims to build a nuclear reactor core using 3D printing, or additive manufacturing. To do so, they not only have to scale up the production capability of additive manufacturing but also set up the qualification methods to ensure that the 3D-printed parts of the nuclear reactor core are up to standard. 

ORNL launched the TCR initiative to incorporate new technologies for the nuclear industry to optimize the process of energy generation and reduce cost. As 3D printing had been widely used in different industries for the same purposes, it was then included in the initiative. Now, the nuclear energy industry can use technologies and materials that the industry wasn’t able to capitalize in the past and aim to build the nuclear reactor core by 2023. 

A new era in manufacturing

More industries have started capitalizing on the advantages of 3D printing to transcend the traditional frameworks of manufacturing. 3D printing has allowed manufacturers to design parts with better performance, streamline their spare parts supply chain, and significantly reduce costs. In the early 20th century, It was unimaginable that a nuclear reactor core could actually be 3D printed; yet, we might be witnessing a 3D-printed nuclear reactor core in 2023. With the rapid advancement in 3D printing, the future of manufacturing holds immense possibilities.

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