UK universities nuclear materials research

The Open University is leading a consortium of six UK universities to enhance understanding of the performance of the materials used in the next generation of nuclear reactors.

The £1.75 million project, funded by the EPSRC, is led by Mike Fitzpatrick, Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust Professor of Materials Fabrication and Engineering at The Open University. He said the consortium partners (Imperial College London and the Universities of Bristol, Loughborough, Manchester and Oxford) have a long track record of innovative projects for the nuclear sector. “We will integrate our work on long term behaviour of materials to gain better understanding of their performance. This is especially critical if future nuclear fission technologies are to operate at high temperatures and for the long lifetimes required to be economically competitive with the less sustainable options for electricity or heat generation.”

Researchers will investigate how to improve the long-term structural performance of materials where service conditions at nuclear plants are exposed to high temperatures, aggressive chemical environments, radiation influences and complex load histories. It is critical under these conditions to understand the materials’ stability and degradation and monitor their condition.

The development of diverse sources of energy and the structure of the energy generation market means that future nuclear systems will be expected to respond to fluctuations in demand, which adds to the complexity of lifetime production forecasts. Reliable lifetime assurance also depends on improvements in the understanding of degradation mechanisms.

Periodical shutdowns of current systems are required for refuelling and maintenance. This is a costly process that can subject inspectors to significant doses of radiation, so the next generation of reactors will need to run for much longer between shutdowns. Some designs may be fuelled for life, which poses significant challenges – one attractive possibility is to develop ways to monitor the material condition to detect any initial and developing problems.

The output from the research will greatly benefit industrial partners and the UK engineering and science community. As nuclear fission expands, there will be an increased need for the development of future designs, life extension for maximum economic impact and improved techniques for safety assessment.