Hub members win funding for new National Nuclear User Facilities

Several members of the South West Nuclear Hub have been awarded significant funding for four National Nuclear User Facility bids covering robotics, microscopy, radiochemistry and materials research.

The National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF) was launched when HM Government’s announced its Nuclear Industrial Strategy in 2013. The aim of the NNUF is to provide the UK nuclear R&D community with better research equipment and facilities.

In this second round of investment totalling around £75m, funded by EPSRC, four facilities will involve University members of the South West Nuclear Hub.

Hot Robotics Facility

The first, and largest, is a ‘Hot Robotics’ facility that will be led by the University of Bristol in collaboration with the University of Manchester, RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), the University of the West of England (UWE) and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). This facility will build on the work of two major national robotics hubs, of which all these NNUF partners are involved with.

A radiation mapping robot in a simulated radioactive environment

Innovators in the nuclear industry struggle to test new solutions under real conditions, and it is therefore difficult to convince operators to deploy new technology on site. This facility will focus on developing a national capability to transition equipment from ‘cold’, off-the-shelf use to ‘Hot’, or radioactive, site deployment.

Due to open in 2023, the facility will be based across four locations strategically dispersed across the UK:

  • RACE Centre at UKAEA, Culham, Oxfordshire
  • The University of Bristol’s Fenswood Farm facility
  • The NNL’s Workington Laboratory
  • The University of Manchester’s Dalton Cumbria Facility

Professor Tom Scott, Director of the South West Nuclear Hub and lead for this facility, said: “This award is strategically excellent for further strengthening our links with the UKAEA and the NNL. It will also act as a substantial honeypot for industrial interaction and a boost to the national academic research effort on nuclear robotics.”

Nick Sykes, Head of Decommissioning at RACE, said: “The Hot Robotics facility will give users the tools they need to demonstrate what is possible and increase the routine use of robotics in nuclear and other highly hazardous environments.”

Active Nano Mapping Facility

The Interface Analysis Centre at the University of Bristol will host a new High-Speed Atomic Force Microscopy facility, building on the pioneering development of this technology at Bristol over the past 15 years. Dr Neil Fox will lead this work with support from Dr Oliver Payton and Professor Scott.

The current HS-AFM facility at Bristol

This new equipment will allow the national nuclear academic community to conduct nanoscale measurements with far greater statistical validity on nuclear materials for the first time. Researchers will be able to measure the nano- and micro- structure of samples with the spatial and temporal accuracy required for modelling fuels, and other nuclear relevant materials at all stages of their lifespan.

EXACT Facility

The University of Southampton will also receive approximately £1m funding for a facility focusing on radiochemistry. This facility is centred around the well-established GAU-Radioanalytical Laboratories who provide services, consultancy and research support for government, industrial and academic sectors.

Irradiated Materials Archive Options Study

Currently, samples of nuclear materials that are used for academic and industrial research are owned and held by various organisations, meaning it is often time-consuming and expensive to get hold of them.

Establishing either a central or distributed archive of a selection of this material that can be accessed by researchers has been identified as a priority by the UK Government’s Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board.

An example of a sample of irradiated material

The UKAEA, the University of Bristol and NNL have been funded to investigate the options for setting up this archive, that will provide a resource for the UK research community and enable easy access to materials in the future. This provides the opportunity to consult a wide range of stakeholders. The output will be a report in March 2021 with recommendations for consideration by EPSRC, the NNUF Management team and owners of the materials. A decision will then be made on whether to proceed with one of the options.

National Nuclear User Facility Management 

Finally, the University of Oxford, led by Professor Chris Grovenor in collaboration with Professor Malcolm Joyce of Lancaster University, Professor Francis Livens of the University of Manchester and UKAEA put in a successful bid for the NNUF Management grant, which will oversee the implementation and running of the newly funded NNUF facilities.

About the National Nuclear User Facility

The National Nuclear User Facility is a distributed centre of excellence in nuclear science and technology dedicated to the provision of national and internationally leading facilities. It has two core activities: the operation of key facilities needed to undertake research and development on the operation and future development of nuclear plant in the UK, and the training of the next generation of nuclear scientists in core skills and the use of modern equipment.

This investment has enabled the NNUF to provide equipment for experiments on materials that are too radioactive for university laboratories. These NNUF facilities are available for use by the whole UK nuclear energy R&D community.

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