Different kinds of oxide fuels are used in nuclear power plants, most commonly used – and for the longest time – is Uranium Dioxide (UO2). A solid understanding of the fuel performance is central to control in-service performance, properties and degradation of the fuel as well as for safe handling of it.
As fuel material, UO2 is usually sintered into small cylindrical pellets, measuring about 10 mm in diameter and similar in length. These cylinders are stacked in fuel rods inside a Zircalloy cladding. The small radial gap between the pellets and the cladding is usually filled with a pressurized gas such as Helium. A number of such fuel rods are mounted in fuel assemblies together with control rods with a high capacity for neutron absorption. The fuel assemblies are then used as heat source in fission power plants.
As the fuel pellets are “burnt” in the reactor, fission processes take place and the degree of irradiation of the fuel pellets is usual measured in terms of the “burnup”, that is the fraction of the initial material that has undergone fission.
Under common in-service conditions, the core of the fuel pellets can be maintained at a temperature of 2000K while the pellet surface is at around 800K (the melting point of UO2 is approximately 3140K). The outside temperature is maintained by a constant flow of coolant through the fuel assemblies. Under such extreme thermal gradient conditions, the fuel material undergoes drastic changes. These changes have a strong influence on fuel performance and properties such as the thermal conductivity and structural rigidity. The grain structure will have different morphologies in different regions. This is schematically illustrated below.
The extreme thermal gradients will also cause so-called “hourglassing” of the fuel pellets along with cracking – both radially and circumferentially – due to thermally induced stresses and swelling due to solid fission products.
By the release of fission gasses (e.g., Xe, Kr, I and Cs), gas-filled pores or voids will form in the microstructure. The gas bubbles form in the grain interiors and migrate by diffusion to coalesce along the grain boundaries.
The presence of gas bubbles can cause swelling and cracking of the fuel pellet and the gas can also be released inside the Zircalloy cladding, lowering the heat conduction capacity of the Helium that surrounds the pellets. In either case, the integrity of the Zircalloy cladding is compromised.
In Hallberg & Zhu (2015), the stability of grain boundary texture under grain growth in UO2 is studied through level set modeling, taking anisotropic grain boundary properties into account. The characteristic morphologies of faceted voids in UO2, due to heterogeneous interface energies, is studied in Zhu & Hallberg (2015) by 3D phase field simulations.