Dry Casks 101: Managing Heat

CASK_101finalCaylee Johanson
Mechanical Engineer

In this series we’ve been talking about storing spent nuclear fuel in dry casks. One major function of these casks is to cool the fuel. Keeping the spent fuel from getting too hot is one way to ensure casks will be safe. As the fuel cools, heat is transferred from inside the cask to the outside.

Our experts look at how the cask will perform this function. We require the cask and fuel to remain within a certain temperature range. Our review looks at four main areas:

Spent fuel releases heat as a result of its radioactive decay. This is called decay heat. A key function of dry storage casks is to move the decay heat from the cask to the outside environment to ensure the fuel and cask components do not get too hot. Our experts look at how that heat will move through the cask and into the environment.

The method used to remove heat has to be reliable and provable. Heat must also be removed in a way that is passive—meaning no electrical power or mechanical device is needed. Casks use conduction, convection and radiation to transfer the heat to the outside.

Heat Radiation Transparent 2The graphic shows the three heat transfer methods. As you can see, conduction transfers heat from the burner through the pot to the handle. The process of heat rising (and cold falling) is known as convection. And the heat you feel coming off a radiator, or a hot stove, is known as radiant heat.

These methods work the same way in a storage cask. Where the canister or metal structure containing the fuel touches the fuel assemblies, heat is conducted toward the outside of the cask. Most casks have vents that allow outside air to flow naturally into the cask (but not into the canister) and cool the canister containing the fuel (convection). And most casks would be warm from radiant heat if you stood next to them. (The heat generated by a loaded spent fuel cask is typically less than is given off by a home-heating system.)

We limit how hot the cask components and fuel materials can get because we want to protect the cladding, or the metal tube that holds the fuel pellets. Limiting the heat is one important way we can ensure the cladding doesn’t degrade. The cask must  keep spent fuel cladding below 752 degrees Fahrenheit during normal storage conditions—a limit that, based on the material properties of the cladding, will prevent it from degrading. The fuel must also remain below 1058 degrees in off-normal or accident conditions (such as if a cask were dropped while it is being positioned on the storage pad, or if a flood or snow were to block the vents).

We also confirm the pressure inside is below the design limit to make sure the pressure won’t impact the structure or operations. Our experts review applications for new cask designs carefully to verify the fuel cladding and cask component temperatures and the internal pressure will remain below specified limits.

Each storage cask is designed to withstand the effects from a certain amount of heat. This amount is called the heat load. We look at whether the designer correctly considered how the heat load will affect cask component and fuel temperatures. We review how this heat load was calculated.

We also verify that the cask designer looked at all the environmental conditions that can be expected because these will also affect the cask component and fuel temperatures. These may include wind speed and direction, temperature extremes, and a site’s elevation (which can affect internal pressure). To make sure the right values are considered, we verify they match the historical records for a site or region.

We review all of the methods used to prove that the storage system can handle the specified heat loads. We also verify any computer codes used in the analysis and the values that were plugged in. For example, we look at the material properties for cask components used in the code. We look at calculations for temperatures and pressure. We make sure the computer codes are the latest versions.

And we only allow designers to use codes that have been endorsed by experts. We might run our own analysis using a different computer code to see if our results match the application.

The analysis and review allow us to see whether and how the dry cask will meet the temperature limits. Our review ensures the temperature is maintained and the cladding is protected. Finally, our review confirms the cask designer used acceptable methods to analyze or test the system and evaluate the thermal design. If we have any questions or concerns, we ask the designer for more information.

Only when we are satisfied that our requirements are met will we approve the thermal analysis in a cask application.

Testing Spent Fuel Transport Casks Using Scale Models

Bernard White
Senior Project Manager
Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation

Before casks can be used to transport the most radioactive cargo—including spent nuclear fuel—the NRC requires them to undergo a thorough safety evaluation. Casks are evaluated for their ability to withstand vibration, water spray, free fall, stacking, penetration and fire. A cask must be able to contain and shield the spent fuel and keep it in a safe configuration under both normal and accident conditions. Typically, spent fuel casks are certified through a combination of engineering analyses and scale model or component testing.

People often ask why the NRC allows designers to test scale models instead of requiring tests on full-sized casks. The bottom line is scale-model testing provides the necessary information for the NRC staff to know that a cask loaded with spent fuel can be transported safely, even in the event of an accident.

scalemodel2First, it is important to understand what information comes out of these tests. Test casks are fitted with sensors to measure acceleration. These accelerometers are similar to the ones used in smart phones, video game remotes and pedometers to respond to the movements of the user. Knowing the cask’s acceleration allows designers and the NRC to understand the forces different parts of the cask will experience in different types of impacts. The design engineer generally calculates these impact forces first by hand or by computer. Tests on a scale model can be used to check the accuracy of these analyses.

Engineers follow a similar process to safety-test airplanes, ships, bridges, buildings and other large structures. Scale-model testing is a proven and accepted practice across engineering disciplines, and may be one of the oldest engineering design tools. (Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman builders are known to have built small models to assist in planning structures.) Today, models allow oversized structures to be examined in wind tunnels, under different weight loads and on shake tables to provide key inputs into design and safety reviews.

Cost savings is a factor, but not the most important one. The biggest reason for using scale models is practicality. Transport casks for spent nuclear fuel are typically in the 25-ton to 125-ton range. There are very few testing facilities in the world that can put a 125-ton cask through the required tests.

For example, during 30-foot drop test, the test cask must strike the surface in the position that would cause the most severe damage. Cask designers often perform several drops to ensure they identify the correct position. After the 30-foot drop, the cask is dropped 40 inches onto a cylindrical puncture bar, then placed in a fully-engulfing fire for 30 minutes. Casks are also immersed in water to ensure they don’t leak. Measurements from these tests are plugged into computer programs that analyze the cask structure in great detail.

This analysis can determine the stresses placed on cask closure bolts, canisters and baskets that hold the spent fuel in place, and the spent fuel assemblies themselves. Computer simulations can be run for different scenarios, providing maximum flexibility to designers in understanding how best to design different parts of a cask’s structure.

In addition, NRC regulations specify that in the 30-foot drop test, the cask must hit an “unyielding” surface. This means the cask itself, which may be fitted with “impact limiters,” has to absorb all the damage. The impact limiters work much like the bumper that protects a car in a collision. The target surface cannot dent, crack or break in any way. In a real-world accident, a 125-ton cask would damage any surface significantly. It requires considerably more engineering work to achieve an unyielding surface for a full-sized cask than for a scale model, with no measurable advantage. The rule-of-thumb for testing is the impact target should be 10 times the mass of the object that will strike it. So a 125-ton cask would need to hit a 1,250 ton surface. A 30-ton cask would only need a 300-ton target.

Scale models are easier to handle and can be used efficiently for many drop orientations to meet the multiple test requirements. If a test needs to be run again, it can be done much more easily with a scale model. Design changes are also more easily tested on models. Together with extensive analyses of a cask’s ability to meet our regulatory requirements, the information from these tests allows the NRC to decide whether a cask can safely transport the radioactive contents.