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The Nuclear National Laboratory (NNL) is the national laboratory tasked with underpinning the science base that supports civil nuclear power in the UK. Their capability in this role was expanded by the transfer of skills by Oxford University staff from the Department of Materials.

Transfer of skills to nuclear national laboratory Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=135148

Research led by Professors Chris Grovenor and Sergio Lozano-Perez has enabled Oxford staff to optimise preparation of microstructural samples from nuclear fuel cladding materials made from zirconium using Focused Ion Beam (FIB) technologies.   The researchers sought to transfer this expertise to NNL strengthening the UK participation in international research programmes and supporting NNL’s ability to win commercial work. 

Zirconium alloys are used in pressurised water reactors (PWR). PWR is the most common fission reactor type worldwide and will be used at the new Hinkley Point C reactor in the UK. One of the main drivers to improve the efficiency of future reactors is to design fuel that can operate under more severe fuel cycles. In particular, this means longer in-core residence times to enable more energy to be extracted from the uranium fuel. Understanding corrosion of zirconium based cladding materials at high temperature and pressures will be essential for the safe operation of nuclear power plants.

EPSRC IAA funding allowed NNL staff to travel to and access experimental facilities in the UKAEA Culham laboratories.  Their staff were trained in the use of a focused ion beam (FIB) milling machine. The FIB machine allows much smaller specimens to be taken from the fuel cladding and analysed. The use of small specimens brings many benefits, from enabling analysis in a greater range of facilities, to a reduction in radiation dose allowing more active material to be used whilst reducing the investigator’s exposure. NNL staff were able to observe an experienced user manufacturing specimens and to practice manufacture themselves under his guidance. The skills learned are now in use on their own equipment at the Sellafield site.

This transfer of knowledge and skills has helped NNL win several new contracts from UK customers worth several £100k. These contracts address technical questions for the UK’s nuclear industry including an improved understanding of corrosion mechanisms at the nano-metre scale which will lead to improved design and more efficient reactor operation.

‘As a result of this initial support from the IAA funds, NNL has been able to offer assistance to members of the UK’s nuclear industry in solving real technical problems, from which we expect both near-term commercial advantages to NNL and longer-term advantages to our customers and the UK in general.’

-          Professor Jonathan Hyde, Chief Technologist – Reactor Operations Support, National Nuclear Laboratory