This study presents the neutronic analysis of an advanced fuel design concept for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) that could significantly extend the current fuel cycle length under the existing design and safety criteria. A key advantage of the fuel design herein proposed is that it would not require structural changes to the present HFIR core, in other words, maintaining the same rated power and fuel geometry (i.e., fuel plate thickness and coolant channel dimensions). Of particular practical importance, as well, is the fact that the proposed change could be justified within the bounds of the existing nuclear safety basis. The simulations herein reported employed transport theory-based and exposure-dependent eigenvalue characterization to help improve the prediction of key fuel cycle parameters. These parameters were estimated by coupling a benchmarked three-dimensional MCNP5 model of the HFIR core to the depletion code ORIGEN via the MONTEBURNS interface.

The design of an advanced HFIR core with an improved fuel loading is an idea that evolved from early studies by R. D. Cheverton, formerly of ORNL. This study contrasts a modified and increased core loading of 12 kg of 235U against the current core loading of 9.4 kg. The simulations performed predict a cycle length of 39 days for the proposed fuel design, which represents a 50% increase in the cycle length in response to a 25% increase in fissile loading, with an average fuel burnup increase of ~23%.

The results suggest that the excess reactivity can be controlled with the present design and arrangement of control elements throughout the core's life. Also, the new power distribution is comparable or even improved relative to the current power distribution, displaying lower peak to average fission rate densities across the inner fuel element's centerline and bottom cells. In fact, the fission rate density in the outer fuel element also decreased at these key locations for the proposed design. Overall, it is estimated that the advanced core design could increase the availability of the HFIR facility by ~50% and generate ~33% more neutrons annually, which is expected to yield sizeable savings during the remaining life of HFIR, currently expected to operate through 2014.

This study emphasizes the neutronics evaluation of a new fuel design. Although a number of other performance parameters of the proposed design check favorably against the current design, and most of the core design features remain identical to the reference, it is acknowledged that additional evaluations would be required to fully justify the thermal-hydraulic and thermal-mechanical performance of a new fuel design, including checks for cladding corrosion performance as well as for industrial and economic feasibility.