Consortium aims to forecast life of nuclear reactors

A multidisciplinary consortium of engineers is looking at ways to forecast the life of nuclear reactors and design materials for a new generation of power stations.

The work will focus on the graphite components of reactors, which are bombarded with high-energy neutrons on a daily basis.

In the current crop of nuclear power stations, the reactor core is surrounded by graphite moderators, which slow down neutrons to speeds most effective for nuclear fission.  

‘As a result of irradiation these bricks swell and cracks develop in them. If they need to be replaced then basically the reactors need to be shut down,’ said Prof Rik Brydson of Leeds University, who is working on the project alongside colleagues from Manchester, Nottingham, Salford, Sussex and Huddersfield universities.

Knowing exactly how the material changes and over what timescale will help engineers predict how long the moderators can do their job properly, how manufacturing processes could be improved and how some of the damage to the graphite blocks might be reversed. The project will also inform the design of a new generation of high-temperature reactors.

‘There are two aspects to this: one is keeping the existing fleet going safely in the UK and the other is looking to the whole new set of reactors that are at much higher temperatures and will need to employ graphite more,’ said Brydson.

The researchers will investigate graphite using transmission electron microscopy, Raman and electron spectroscopy and X-ray tomography, among other techniques.

A key part of the project will be its multidisciplinary approach, bringing together academics from different, but complementary, fields of research.

‘They’re all engineers of one sort or another, but some are very much at the theoretical, atomistic modelling side, right through to people who are looking at engineering components at a mechanistic level,’ Brydson added.

The project, which will run for three years, is being funded by a £1.3m grant from the EPSRC. It will involve around 25 academics, postdoctoral researchers and postgraduate students across the six universities, and key industrial partners from the nuclear industry.

’There has been very little focus on this type of nuclear research in the UK for 40 to 50 years,’ said Dr Andrew Scott of Leeds, who is also involved in the project.

’It is vital that we start training a new generation of nuclear engineers. This project will go some way towards doing that.’