The performance of follow-on experiments using irradiated nuclear fuel at any point in its lifecycle is a critical step in understanding phenomena and behavior. Transient experiments with high-burnup fuel can deepen the understanding of fuel fragmentation, relocations, and dispersal under loss-of-coolant accidents. An advanced autonomous welding process to refabricate commercial fuel rods inside a hot cell was created and tested to enable flexible experiment approaches on fuels irradiated in commercial and test reactors. Irradiated light water reactor fuel test pins from experiments performed at the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) at Idaho National Laboratory were used to demonstrate the refabrication process.

The welding process was found to be sensitive to welding parameters but flexible such that multiple passes could be performed on the same location until a hermetic weld was obtained. The refabrication of rodlets and successful welds was also found to be sensitive to the preparation of the irradiated cladding and endcaps. Thorough defueling of the fuel at the weld location and proper sizing of the endcaps and backing material mitigated these issues. The use of strategically located heat sinks in contact with the cladding and endcap materials also increased welding and refabrication success.

For this work, the test pins were sectioned to remove the original endcaps and fuel was removed from both ends of each rodlet. The reassembly of the rodlets was then completed in four steps, which included the press fitting of new endcaps, the circumferential welding of rodlet endcaps to the cladding, rodlet pressurization in a pressure chamber, and seal welding the rodlet under pressure. The integrity of the refabricated rodlets was then verified via helium leak checking inside a vacuum chamber. The advanced welding system is capable of refabricating rodlets up to 380 mm in length, and repressurizing them up to 15 500 kPa. The refabricated lengths of the rodlets used in this work ranged from 149 to 165 mm and the refabricated fuel stack heights ranged from 70.4 to 79.8 mm. The rodlets were pressurized with argon to an average pressure of 3617 kPa, and the average leak rate after refabrication was 6.7∙10−8∙cm3∙s−1.