A £1 million project at the University of Huddersfield will provide the nuclear power industry with scientific data it needs to ensure that future generations of reactors and radioactive waste storage solutions are safe and reliable. It will also help to address the UK's serious shortage of nuclear scientists and engineers.
The University is home to an electron microscope named MIAMI - Microscope and Ion Accelerator for Materials Investigations facility. It is unique in the UK, and one of only two such facilities in Europe. It uses ion beams as a safe method for simulating the effects of radiation damage on materials and it allows scientists to carry out examinations at the nanoscale.
MIAMI was co-developed by Professor Stephen Donnelly - Dean of the School of Computing and Engineering - and he heads a University of Huddersfield team that has now been awarded £889,839 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
The money will meet the bulk of the cost of a three-and-a-half year project that will investigate the damage caused by irradiation of the materials that are used for the construction of reactors and for the long-term, safe 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. Now Professor 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.
Irradiation at the nanoscale
"The project is about producing a base line of experimental evidence," said Dr Hinks, who explained that the research team would use ion beams to irradiate thin samples of material.
"You have to have a very thin piece of material - typically 100 nanometres or less - otherwise the electrons won't get through and you can't see anything," said Dr Hinks. 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.
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 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 will also make an important contribution to the choice of materials for the Generation IV reactors due to come on stream from the 2030s onwards.
Training new nuclear scientists
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 - due to be appointed in early 2015 - and they will each be assigned to one of the strands. The researchers will be highly-qualified, but will also receive training in aspects of nuclear science.
An important dimension of the project is the training of new nuclear scientists, said Dr Hinks. This is to help correct a deficit in the UK.
"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. So there is a skill gap, particularly serious when you consider the expansion of the UK's nuclear capacity that is now planned."