How a little known team supplies a lot of nuclear fuel

When asked what they want to be when they grow up, most students would never mention Kevin Houston’s job. In fact, according to Houston, a lot of people don’t realize his organization exists.

Kevin Houston
Kevin Houston

But, as the manager of fuel supply within Nuclear Fuels Engineering, Houston plays a critical role in generating electricity with uranium fuel. Nuclear fuel is extremely efficient, and it fuels our nuclear plants in generating around-the-clock electricity without producing carbon emissions.

That nuclear fuel doesn’t just appear at a nuclear plant. Duke Energy’s fuel supply organization is responsible for ensuring each nuclear plant’s reactors are supplied reliable, efficient fuel in a low-cost fashion for scheduled refueling outages

“People assume nuclear fuel comes straight from the fabrication vendor to the plant for refueling outages,” Houston said. “Duke Energy actually starts contracting for some fuel material several years prior to its arrival just before a reactor’s refueling outage.”

The fuel supply team collaborates with Duke Energy nuclear fuel engineers throughout the fuel purchasing process. Working with vendors, they step through the uranium mining, conversion and enrichment process – the team monitors every step of the way that begins with removing uranium from the ground.

Duke Energy engineers are responsible for determining how much fuel is needed for each fuel cycle. They also specify fuel assembly locations in the reactor to maximize available energy. Fabrication vendors work with Duke Energy to ensure a quality product, by converting fuel material into fuel pellets and building the fuel assemblies that arrive at our stations.

“It’s like designing a chair,” Houston said. “We don’t just buy the chair fully made – we select the wood, we design the product and we select the builders.”

Another part of the job includes managing the timing of purchases, which keeps it interesting, Houston said.

“Fuel prices need to be low and predictable for the company, station co-owners and our customers,” Houston said. “We try to smooth fuel cost volatility by using a fuel purchasing strategy similar to dollar-cost-averaging with stock portfolios. We determine the best times to buy and adjust the portfolio. Part of our job is to watch the market.”

So, what’s the best part of Houston’s job?

“I like knowing we’ve achieved reliable performance for nuclear plant operations while maintaining low fuel costs,” he said. “And, we leverage creativity and experience to get us there.”

Houston is a 26-year employee for Duke Energy. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Florida and N.C. State, respectively.

Just how powerful is nuclear fuel? 

NEI fuel pellet graphic

A nuclear fuel pellet used in nuclear reactors is about the size of your finger tip. It is an enriched form of uranium known as uranium-235, and it packs an enormous amount of energy. In fact, the 98 operating reactors in the U.S. generate nearly 20 percent of all U.S. electricity and more than half of America’s carbon-free power.

 

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