UK project aims to extend life and improve performance of nuclear plants

An EPSRC-funded project, led by researchers at Strathclyde University, is attempting to develop the technologies and expertise needed to extend the life of nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power is undergoing a renaissance in the UK, thanks to concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel plants, and a major government programme of investment in the sector.

nuclear sizewell b
Extending the lifetime of existing nuclear power plants like Sizewell B will be increasingly important

However, with the industry already facing significant skills shortages, investment in new nuclear plants and efforts to extend the lives of existing plants, alongside a parallel programme of renewal in nuclear submarines, is placing considerable strain on the industry.

The Strathclyde project, which also includes partners Babcock International Group, BAM Nuttall, Bruce Power, EDF-Energy, Kinectrics, the Weir Group, Imperial College, the Alan Turing Institute and the universities of Surrey and Cranfield, is aiming to reduce the cost of managing and maintaining existing nuclear plants, and increase their generating capacity, by improving their health.

This should help to reduce the cost of nuclear energy for consumers.

The expertise and technology produced as a result of the project will also be fed into the development of next generation nuclear plants, according to Professor Stephen McArthur at Strathclyde, who is leading the project.

“One of the big challenges facing the industry at the moment is plant lifetime extension, how you extend the life of nuclear power plants to allow them to continue providing electricity generation in the medium term, as part of our drive towards a low carbon economy,” said McArthur.

To this end, the researchers will investigate advances such as autonomous non-destructive evaluation and inspection technologies. In particular, they aim to improve the ultrasonic inspection technologies used to monitor the health of nuclear plants, said McArthur.

“There are a number of challenges around the infrastructure, which include the reactor core, and then widening out into the systems associated with that, and beyond it to the mechanical equipment like pumps and valves, and the electrical equipment,” he said.

The researchers will also investigate the use of bacteria and other biological organisms to develop self-healing concrete. Concrete, used widely in nuclear plants, is prone to cracking, which allows water to enter and degrade the structures.

By adding bacteria capable of using water and a feedstock to produce cement-like substances, for example, the team hope to develop structures that can heal any cracks or holes for themselves, before they become significant.

Finally, the researchers aim to investigate how advances in machine learning technologies could create smarter nuclear power stations, said McArthur.

“We will be looking at how we translate the recent advancements in data science into operational systems within the nuclear field, so that as you are gathering lots of data from plant and equipment, you can be automatically informed of any major deviations and issues that you need to be aware of,” he said.

The technology could also allow plant operators to predict issues before they arise, he added.

Ultimately, the team hopes to take laboratory research at a low technology readiness level, and develop it into prototypes for applications within the industry, McArthur said.

“We will take what is being envisaged in a laboratory context and show that it works for data or equipment within the industry, in the short term as prototypes, and then in the longer term we will work with the supply chain partners to turn the technology into products and systems that can be used for day-to-day operations in the plant,” he said.