3D printing in the nuclear industry
The nuclear sector is not known for being the most innovative industry. Because of the strict – but justified – regulations, the introduction of innovations is a lengthy process.
A few months ago, Damona helped a spin-off from a UK university and showed them how tedious it can be!
So when we saw 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – evolve from a project funded by DOE to something actually being used in a commercial nuclear power plant, we at Damona and inTechBrew – Damona’s ecosystem for nuclear innovation – decided to take a look and see what was going on.
3D printing is pretty much everywhere now. If you want to launch a product one day and approach an industrial design firm, you can be sure that the first prototypes will be made with a 3D printer.
To explain in simple terms what additive manufacturing is, The Welding Institute gives us a pretty good definition:
“Using computer aided design (CAD) or 3D object scanners, additive manufacturing allows for the creation of objects with precise geometric shapes. These are built layer by layer which is in contrast to traditional manufacturing that often requires machining or other techniques to remove surplus material.”
As you can see, 3D printing is no longer just a toy for geeks who want to build something. Many industries are now using additive manufacturing to reduce costs and manufacturing times.
Currently, the largest B2B customers are:
- Energy – as a whole;
- Consumer goods.
Is it an interesting market?
The answer is yes and it is growing, as shown by 3D Printing Industry.
With a market of $15 billion in 2021, the CAGR is expected to be around 16% by 2026, reaching a market of $37.2 billion in 5 years.
So things are getting interesting, are not they? So why are not we already using them in the nuclear industry?
The use of additive manufacturing offers many benefits to the nuclear industry:
- Lower cost;
- Shortened lead time;
- Production of saved parts from manufacturers who stopped / closed production years ago;
- Better monitoring – by integrating sensors between layers.
Small steps in Europe
There are various 3D printing research programmes across Europe that are being applied to the nuclear industry – for example, the Famergie platform.
However, when it comes to commercial operation, there are virtually no results.
Fuel processing facilities
Orano worked with AddUp Solutions in 2021 to investigate the feasibility and viability of manufacturing replacement parts using metal additive manufacturing. One of the focal points was a steam manifold block, which is known to have a very long lead time and of which Orano needs to have a large inventory at all times.
The combination of these two constraints – long lead time and high inventory – is definitely a challenge and has a strong impact on cost.
After this project, Orano and AddUp Solutions have successfully demonstrated the power of 3D printed spare parts. But more importantly, they have reduced production costs by over 50%.
Nuclear power stations
Back in 2017, Siemens did it at Krško NPS in Slovenia.
They focused on a metallic impeller that is part of a pump that is part of the fire protection system. The original component had been in continuous use since the NPS was commissioned in 1981.
Unsurprisingly – as can be seen with many NPSs – the original manufacturer of the impeller went bankrupt.
Having made a digital copy / twin, Siemens sent it to its Swedish additive manufacturing facility and successfully used the spare part.
Four years later, the impeller still appears to be functional.
Below is a picture from Siemens showing from left to right: original part, digital replica, and the final part made by additive manufacturing.
What Siemens has achieved is in some ways revolutionary, as it is the first 3D-printed replacement part to be used in a commercial nuclear power plant.
The impeller is not exposed to radiation, however, because it is part of the fire protection system.
3D printing in a radioactive environment
“Our lab director was like, ‘Those guys that built the first one (reactor) ever, built it in nine months. How fast can you guys do it?’ That’s how it started,” Terrani said.
The US has taken the lead in the application of 3D printing to nuclear technology with its TCR programme run by ORNL / DOE.
With a plan to have a 3D-printed microreactor in operation by 2023, the programme aims to demonstrate the benefits of additive manufacturing.
The way 3D printing unleashes the power of iteration is extremely interesting, as it brings the agile methodology of software development to physical products: Instead of a 6-month design followed by product manufacturing, ORNL teams do very short design runs – from a few days to 2-3 weeks – and then manufacture a product. If the manufactured product is not satisfactory, they start over and make the changes.
In this way, they simultaneously work with NRC to validate their development and also conduct trials with commercial companies.
There is another interesting project in the US. This summer Framatome and TVA installed 4 channel fixtures for BWR fuel in the reactor core of Brown Ferry 2. They will remain in the core for 6 years and will be monitored/analysed during and after irradiation. This is the first 3D printed product to be commercially exposed to radiation.
But that’s not all.
ORNL is also working with BWXT and has successfully demonstrated that they can 3D print complex geometries of molybdenum reflectors. Additive manufacturing is known to be extremely difficult to manufacture and can drastically reduce cost and lead time. BWXT’s next step is to work on direct commercial applications. (Photo credit: BWXT)
2021 is just the beginning of 3D printing in the nuclear industry.
The benefits are obvious to any engineer and we all hope that this technology will become mainstream in our industry.
However, there is still a long way to go before commercial use, with the usual hurdle: safety regulations.
The more the industry can see the quantified benefits of additive manufacturing, the easier it will be adopted by nuclear players. But we can already draw some conclusions from other industries: 15% more efficiency in design and manufacturing, 25% fewer revisions, and 30% fewer quality checks.
As you can see, 3D printing is an amazing innovation and will definitely play an important role in the future of the nuclear industry. If you are interested in more innovation in the nuclear sector, check out inTechBrew. This is our innovation ecosystem with COTS / High TRL nuclear technologies that are considered groundbreaking.