Safety margins are particularly tight in natural uranium-fuelled CANDU reactors which are refueled on-power. During on-power refueling, the insertion of xenon-free fresh fuel bundles into the reactor core affects the reactor’s excess reactivity in such a way that this could lead to temporary power derating. It is desirable from a fuel management perspective, and to maintain safety margins to eliminate this xenon-free effect and any other power ripples such as the subsequent plutonium reactivity peak. A redesign of the CANDU NU fuel bundle with an appropriate combination of elements, with some including neutron-absorbers, could well address the issue of the xenon-free initial portion of the bundle’s irradiation and also lower the plutonium-peak that occurs shortly thereafter. This may improve the fuel utilization (by further optimizing the fuelling strategy) and provide improved safety margins (by lowering the maximum channel and bundle powers).
The use of neutron-absorbers in fuel design and manufacturing has been a regular practice in Light Water Reactor fuels for more than three decades. In CANDU applications, neutron absorbers have also been considered for the conceptual Advanced CANDU Reactor and the Low Void Reactivity fuel designs, for which the fissile content is made of low enriched uranium (LEU) or MOX fuels. The application to CANDU natural uranium (NU) fuel, however, especially as burnable poisons, is a relative novel approach. The reason for this is that the neutron economy in natural uranium-fuelled CANDU reactors is a prime concern, thus the addition of extra neutron absorbers is generally shunned. In our proposed application of burnable poisons to existing CANDU NU fuel design, because of low excess reactivity for NU fuel, the amount of neutron-absorber is expected to be restricted to small quantities and in a manner whereby the poison effect is restricted to the initial period of excess reactivity of a newly inserted fuel bundle. This implies that the impact on neutron economy would be relatively minimal, but the fuel performance would be significantly improved.
Small amounts and appropriate mixtures of neutron absorbers were selected (approximately 500 mg of absorbers in a CANDU fuel bundle having a nominal weight of 24 kg). Preliminary results indicate that the fuelling transient and the subsequent reactivity peak can be lowered to improve the reactor’s operating margins. A parametric study using the Los Alamos National Laboratories’ MCNP 5 and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s WIMS-AECL 3.1 codes is presented in this paper. Details of this project and future work are also to be discussed.