Americium is a strong contributor to the long term radiotoxicity of high activity nuclear waste. Transmutation by irradiation in nuclear reactors of long-lived nuclides like 241Am is, therefore, an option for the reduction of radiotoxicity and residual power of waste packages to be stored in a repository. The SPHERE irradiation experiment is the latest of a series of European experiments on americium transmutation (e.g. EFTTRA-T4, EFTTRA-T4bis, HELIOS, MARIOS). The SPHERE experiment is carried out in the framework of the 4-year project FAIRFUELS of the EURATOM 7th Framework Programme (FP7). During the past years of experimental work in the field of transmutation and tests of innovative nuclear fuel containing americium, the release or trapping of helium as well as swelling has shown to be the key issue for the design of such kinds of target because it may determines the achievable transmutation yield. The main objective of the SPHERE experiment is to study the in-pile behaviour of fuel containing 4 % of americium and to compare the behaviour of sphere-pac fuel to pellet fuel, in particular the role of microstructure and temperature on gas release and on fuel swelling.
The SPHERE experiment is being irradiated since September 2013 in the HFR (High Flux Reactor) in Petten (The Netherlands) and is expected to be terminated in spring 2015. The experiment has been designed to last up to 18 reactor cycles (corresponding to 18 months) but may reach its target earlier.
This paper discusses the rationale and objective of the SPHERE experiment and provides a general description of its design.