Materials research aims for safety and integrity of new nuclear reactors and waste facilities

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A £1m project at Huddersfield University aims to provide the nuclear power industry with the data it needs to produce future reactors and radioactive waste storage facilities that remain safe and reliable.

The University believes the three-year project will also help in addressing the UK’s shortage of nuclear scientists and engineers.

The University is home to the MIAMI (Microscope and Ion Accelerator for Materials Investigations) electron microscope facility. One of only two such facilities in Europe, MIAMI uses ion beams to simulate the effects of radiation damage on materials.

MIAMI was co-developed by Prof Stephen Donnelly, the Dean of the School of Computing and Engineering who is leading a Huddersfield University team in the project to investigate the damage caused by irradiation of materials used in the construction of reactors and for the long-term disposal of radioactive waste.

Particles such as neutrons can weaken and alter the physical dimensions of materials and a build-up of helium can result in them becoming brittle and likely to fracture. Prof Donnelly and Senior Research Fellow Dr Jonathan Hinks – also a member of the team that developed MIAMI – will lead a group that will investigate these issues with the help of funding worth £889,839 from EPSRC.

‘The project is about producing a base line of experimental evidence,’ Dr Hinks said in a statement.

Using electrons in the same way that a conventional microscope uses light, MIAMI enables researchers to see inside the ultra-thin samples of material and witness changes caused by irradiation, including the build up of gas bubbles.

According to the University, the amount of ion energy and temperatures can be varied during the experiments and the result will be a database of information about the effects of irradiation at the nanoscale that can then be scaled up by scientists and engineers selecting materials for reactors and for waste disposal.

The University further claims that findings of the project will be relevant to the Generation III+ reactors soon to be constructed in the UK. The materials for these have already been selected, said Dr Hinks, but regulatory authorities need constant updates on safety issues and the MIAMI data will enable engineers to predict how reactors will perform over time.

The research is also expected to make a contribution to the choice of materials for the Generation IV reactors due to come on stream from the 2030s onwards.

There are two strands to the EPSRC-backed project – structural nuclear materials, and nuclear waste storage. The MIAMI research group will be augmented by two post-doctoral researchers who are due to be appointed in early 2015.

‘Because there was a lack of investment in nuclear research and development in the 80s and 90s, the demographic of the people who work in the industry has shifted towards retirement age,’ Dr Hinks. ‘So there is a skill gap, particularly serious when you consider the expansion of the UK’s nuclear capacity that is now planned.’