The YaEDU is the reactor that will be used on the TEM spacecraft. It has either a thermionic or Brayton-type power conversion system, and produces 4 MW of thermal power. It is designed for a 10 year reactor life.
This is the powerplant for the Transportation and Energy Module (TEM), Russia’s latest proposal for a nuclear-electric spacecraft designed for both interplanetary mission profiles as well as an inter-orbital space tug. In the latter configuration, it will be used to raise orbits of satellites, deorbit defunct satellites, and possibly serve as a platform for automated satellite extension missions.
The reactor itself is a gas cooled, fast neutron spectrum, oxide fueled reactor, designed with an electrical output requirement rather than a thermal output requirement, oddly enough (choice in power conversion system changes the ratio of thermal to electrical power significantly, and as we’ll see it’s not set in stone yet) of 1 Mwe. This requires a thermal output of at least 4 MWt, although depending on power conversion efficiency it may be higher. Currently, though, the 4 MWt figure seems to be the baseline for the design. It is meant to have a ten year reactor lifetime.
This system has undergone many changes over its 11 year life, and due to the not-completely-clear nature of much of its development and architecture, there’s much about the system that we have conflicting or incomplete information on. Therefore, I’m going to be providing line-by-line references for the design details in these sections, and if you’ve got confirmable technical details on any part of this system, please comment below with your references!
The fuel for the reactor appears to be highly enriched uranium oxide, encased in a monocrystalline molybdenum clad. According to some reporting (https://habr.com/en/post/381701/ ), the total fuel mass is somewhere between 80-150 kg, depending on enrichment level. There have been some mentions of carbonitride fuel, which offers a higher fissile fuel density but is more thermally sensitive (although how much is unclear), but these have been only passing mentions.
The use of monocrystalline structures in nuclear reactors is something that the Russians have been investigating and improving for decades, going all the way back to the Romashka reactor in the 1950s. The reason for this is simple: grain boundaries, or the places where different crystalline structures interact within a solid material, act as refractory points for neutrons, similarly to how a cracked pane of glass distorts the light coming through it through internal reflection and the disruption of light waves undergoing refraction in the material. There’s two ways around this: either make sure that there are no grain boundaries (the Russian method), or make it so that the entire structure – or as close to it as possible – are grain boundaries, called nanocrystalline materials (the preferred method of the US and other Western countries. While the monocrystalline option is better in many ways, since it makes an effectively transparent, homogeneous material, it’s difficult to grow large monocrystalline structures, and they can be quite fragile in certain materials and circumstances. This led the US and others to investigate the somewhat easier to execute, but more loss-intensive, nanocrystalline material paradigm. For astronuclear reactors, particularly ones with a relatively low keff (effective neutron multiplication rate, or how many neutrons the reactor has to work with), this monocrystalline approach makes sense, but I’ve been unable to find the keff of this reactor anywhere, so it may be quite high in theory.
It was reported by lenta.ru in 2014 (https://lenta.ru/news/2014/07/08/rosatom/ ) that the first fuel element (or TVEL in Russian) was assembled at Mashinostroitelny Zavod OJSC.
Reference was made (http://www.atomic-energy.ru/news/2015/07/01/58052 ) in 2015 to the fuel rods as “RUGBK” and “RUEG,” although the significance of this acronym is beyond me. If you’re familiar with it, please comment below!
In 2016, Dmitry Markov, the Director of the Institute of Reactor Materials in Zarechny, Sverdlovsk, reported that full size fuel elements had been successfully tested (https://xn--80aaxridipd.xn--p1ai/uchenye-iz-sverdlovskoj-oblasti-uspeshno-zavershili-ispytaniya-tvel-dlya-kosmicheskogo-yadernogo-dvigatelya/ ).
The TEM uses a mix of helium and xenon as its primary coolant, a common choice for fast-spectrum reactors. Initial reporting indicated an inlet temperature of 1200K, with an outlet temperature of 1500K, although I haven’t been able to confirm this in any more recent sources. Molybdenum, tantalum, tungsten and niobium alloys are used for the primary coolant tubes.
Testing of the coolant loop took place at the MIR research reactor in NIIAR, in the city of Dimitrovgrad. Due to the high reactor temperature, a special test loop was built in 2013 to conduct the tests. Interestingly, other options, including liquid metal coolant, were considered (http://osnetdaily.com/2014/01/russia-advances-development-of-nuclear-powered-spacecraft/ ), but rejected due to lower efficiency and the promise of the initial He-Xe testing.
Power Conversion System
There have been two primary options proposed for the power conversion system of the TEM, and in many ways it seems to bounce back and forth between them: the Brayton cycle gas turbine and a thermionic power conversion system. The first offers far superior power conversion ratios, but is notoriously difficult to make into a working system for a high temperature astronuclear system; the second is a well-understood system that has been used through multiple iterations in flown Soviet astronuclear systems, and was demonstrated on the Buk, Topol, and Yenesiy reactors (the first two types flew, the third is the only astronuclear reactor to be flight-certified by both Russia and the US).
In 2013, shortly after the design outline for the TEM was approved, the MAKS trade show had models of many components of the TEM, including a model of the Brayton system. At the time, the turbine was advertised to be a 250 kW system, meaning that four would have been used by the TEM to support YaEDU. This system was meant to operate at an inlet temperature of 1550K, with a rotational speed of 60,000 rpm and a turbine tip speed of 500 m/s. The design work was being primarily carried out at Keldysh Center.
The Brayton system would include both DC/AC and AC/DC convertors, buffer batteries as part of a power conditioning system, and a secondary coolant system for both the power conversion system bearing lubricant and the batteries.
Building and testing of a prototype turbine began before the 2013 major announcement, and was carried out at Keldysh Center. (http://osnetdaily.com/2014/01/russia-advances-development-of-nuclear-powered-spacecraft/ )
As early as 2015, though, there were reports (https://habr.com/en/post/381701/ ) that RSC Energia, the spacecraft manufacturer, were considering going with a simpler power conversion system, a thermionic one. Thermionic power conversion heats a material, which emits electrons (thermions). These electrons pass through either a vacuum or certain types of exotic materials (called Cs-Rydberg matter) to deposit on another surface, creating a current.
This would reduce the power conversion efficiency, so would reduce the overall electric power available, but is a technology that the Russians have a long history with. These reactors were designed by the Arsenal Design Bureau, who apparently had designs for a large (300-500 kW) thermionic design. If you’d like to learn more about the history of thermionic reactors in the USSR and Russia, check out these posts:
This was potentially confirmed in January 2020 by the website Atomic Energy (http://www.atomic-energy.ru/news/2020/01/28/100970 ) by the first deputy head of Roscosmos, Yuri Urlichich. If so, this is not only a major change, but a recent one. Assuming the reactor itself remains in the same configuration, this would be a departure from the historical precedent of Soviet designs, which used in-core thermionics (due to their radiation hardness) rather than out-of-core designs, which were investigated by the US for the SNAP-8 program (something we’ll cover in the future).
So, for now we wait and see what the system will be. If it is indeed the thermionic system, then system efficiency will drop significantly (from somewhere around 30-40% to about 10-15%), meaning that far less electrical power will be available for the TEM.
The shielding for the YaEDU is a mix of high-hydrogen blocks, as well as structural components and boron-containing materials (http://www.atomic-energy.ru/news/2015/12/24/62211).
The hydrogen is useful to shield most types of radiation, but the inclusion of boron materials stops neutron radiation very effectively. This is important to minimize damage from neutron irradiation through both atomic displacement and neutron capture, and boron does a very good job of this.
The Future of Nuclear Electric Propulsion?
This design has been in the works for a long time, and is finally reaching the point of advanced ground testing with custom facilities, and a not-too-distant (but multiply revised) launch date. If all goes according to plan, but 2030 this reactor will be used in many operating missions, and have a production line set up to both maximize the number of missions it is able to carry out, as well as minimize the costs.
The biggest question mark for the power module remains the power conversion system. While Brayton cycle power conversion systems are incredibly attractive in terms of conversion efficiency and mass, they remain one of the biggest challenges for astronuclear designs. Hopefully the issues here can be overcome.
In the meantime, we will see how the thermionic power conversion system fares. While it isn’t as efficient, it offers greater simplicity, and is a field that the Russians have a long history of development to draw on.