Fission of the future

Materials World magazine
4 Dec 2011
power plant

The Bristol–Oxford Nuclear Research Centre (NRC) is to provide the cutting-edge research needed to fuel Britain’s nuclear future. Michael Bennett reports on the opening ceremony  

It is still not clear if, or more precisely, where, the radioactive dust has settled from the fallout of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Though the meltdown prompted some nations, such as Germany, to declare their commitment to a nuclear-free future, the UK government has stood by the notion that nuclear power will form a crucial part of the country’s future ‘energy mix’.

With this in mind, Bristol and Oxford Universities have inaugurated the Bristol–Oxford Nuclear Research Centre (NRC), which follows on from the launch of the Research Centre for Radwaste and Decommissioning at the University of Manchester and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield.

Professor David Smith, one of the two NRC directors, said ‘Both Bristol and Oxford already have a huge portfolio of [nuclear] research. The aim is to try to bring a bigger focus to it, rather than compete with Manchester or Sheffield.’

The term ‘centre’ is something of a misnomer though, as the NRC is more of an intellectual sprawl spanning research teams across both universities. The actual opening of the NRC was conducted in the grandiose setting of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building on 8 November 2011. The Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research from each university led proceedings, with Professor Guy Orpen, representing Bristol, and Professor Ian Walmsley, from Oxford. With a tangible sense of excitement in the grand hall, Professor Walmsley explained that the NRC represented previously atomised areas aligning, ‘It’s science, it’s technology, it’s policy – no one of these will be able to solve it alone.’

The people behind the NRC hope the centre will help build on existing geographical links to establish itself as the focal point for high-end research in the region. The south-west of England has an unusually high concentration of UK nuclear professionals, two future nuclear power stations (Oldbury and Hinkley Point), a conglomeration of energy companies, such as EDF-Energy, and the presence of wind, wave and solar energy in the area, and is likely to be the engine room of our nuclear future.

According to Professor Steven Cowley, CEO of The UK Atomic Energy Authority, the UK’s future nuclear energy industry could be worth one trillion US dollars a year – clearly nuclear is of paramount importance to the Government’s energy plans. So much so that Charles Hendry, UK Minister of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change hastily rearranged his schedule to appear at the opening of the centre. ‘This is the best type of relationship,’ he said, ‘Students are looking to do it, universities can provide the leadership, and you’ve got industry keen to partner in that process.’

Triple-tiered approach

The research of the NRC has been split into three topics – Nuclear Futures, Advanced Research and Applied Research. Nuclear Futures takes something of a long-term view and involves institutes such as the Oxford Martin School forecasting upcoming energy challenges, the Bristol Environmental Research Centre (BRISK) looking at environmental hazards and risks by modelling hydrologic and hydraulic problems, and the Bristol-based Cabot Institute considering the implications of Fukushima on the UK nuclear industry.

The Advanced Research teams have been investigating waste irradiated graphite from decommissioned Magnox and AGR reactors to make nuclear batteries, using a device that harvests beta emissions from 14C material undergoing radioactive decay and converts it to electrical current within a diamond-based thermionic device. Within the group there is also a joint research team looking at the fundamentals of deformation and fracture of materials, such as the role of residual stresses on creep life of 316H weldments.

The other wing of the NRC is Applied Research, with teams from both universities exploring topics from thermal management to earthquake and natural hazard assessment. Researchers in this theme are also looking at digital systems assurance, something which Smith thinks is as crucial to the safe operation of a nuclear plant as the actual materials in the structure itself. He explains, ‘Safety systems usually mean computer systems. The first build of nuclear plants used analog computer systems. Now it’s all digital and computer controlled, and security of a digitally controlled system is absolutely paramount to a safe operation.’

The event also showcased techniques being trialled by Bristol researchers, that involves using iron nanoparticles for the remediation of ground and waste waters in Romania. The nanoparticles are injected into the pollution source to use their high reactivity to destroy or immobilise contaminants.

Testing times

The twin aims of the NRC are developing materials research and facilities and helping coordinate research towards the upcoming Generation IV nuclear power plants. Before this can happen though, some tough tests lie ahead, not least convincing a sceptical populace that needs reassuring of safety, and finding a way around a public purse that keeps shrinking. One disgruntled academic complained, ‘We need companies to pay for our research students. There won’t be many nuclear scientists in five years time, unless you train them now. The EPSRC’s decision to stop funding PhD students is catastrophic.’

Professor Smith replied, ‘I’m not here to spoon-feed you. There are other places to get funding – the EPSRC is just a government agency – go to industry, go to anyone who wants to fund research. The dynamics of these companies all have different divisions, and the key thing for me is to get integrated into their strategic thinking.’

Smith believes that the nuclear industry needs to take a more proactive and imaginative approach rather than waiting for hand-outs. ‘If we want to do a partnership with industry and government to do UK research, we should be asking industry ‘what would you like to do, what would you like to engage in?’

Smith said that he hoped the NRC would go some way to linking up previously disparate areas, as the expertise, technology and facilities all exist, but are not networked for optimum efficiency. One example of this is the difficulty faced by researchers in getting access to high-temperature reactors, an area crucial to the development of Generation IV plants. ‘To look at high-temperature nuclear you need special facilities. I can count on one hand the facilities in the UK that do that. Now if we joined them all up, suddenly we’d have critical mass.’