The South West Nuclear Hub structures its research under the following themes:
1. Nuclear Materials and Modelling
In safety-critical industries like nuclear energy, expert experimental and theoretical knowledge is vital to secure reliable cost effective and safe operation over the long, up to 60 years operating, lifetime for both fission and fusion plant. This theme focuses on underpinning industrial fundamental understanding of the inter-relationship between material 'microstructure', nano- to micro-metre length-scale, and their physical, chemical and mechanical properties in the associated extreme environmental conditions.
Specific research in this area includes:
- Materials characterisation – relationship between ‘microstructure’ and mechanisms
- A range of materials addressed including metals, alloys, ceramics, including reactor graphite and composites
- Modelling – from nano- to micro-metre length-scale
- Fundamental actinide physics
- Accident-tolerant nuclear fuels and fuel performance
- Physical, chemical and mechanical properties of materials subject to extreme environmental conditions
- Applications for nuclear fission and fusion (and Gen IV technologies such as molten salt reactors)
- Fuel cycle and management
2. Systems Risk, Reliability, Security and Resilience
In low carbon energy production, the increasingly competitive renewables are perceived as presenting no risks. To compete beyond baseload production, nuclear energy can reduce costs whilst maintaining public acceptance using cutting edge assurance techniques.
Risk, reliability, security and resilience research is developing deep assurance for new nuclear technologies, engaging both nuclear licensees and the regulator through the CINIF (Control & Instrumentation Nuclear Industry Forum) research programme and the Government’s BEIS Nuclear Innovation Programme.
This research theme involves:
- Powerful new test methods for the safety and security of complex digital systems
- Objective J-value assessments for more accurate quantification of nuclear risks, allowing risk prioritisation to target effort where it is most cost effective
- Organisational resilience techniques predisposed to safety in human operations and human-autonomy cooperation
3. Structural Integrity
In safety-critical industries like nuclear energy, expert experimental and theoretical knowledge is vital to underpin physical assets and equipment over its long lifetime. Structural Integrity covers the investigation of engineering materials and components to help support their successful performance in industrial applications.
Research in this area includes:
- Damage-tolerance characterisation (e.g. fracture, fatigue, corrosion, creep and their interaction) for nuclear plant lifetime assessment
- Advanced multi-scale characterization methods (e.g. microstructure, residual stress measurement)
- Modelling and simulation of structural materials and components
A major project in this area is the SINDRI Partnership: an EPSRC-funded Prosperity Partnership bringing together five lead organisations including EDF and the University of Bristol, supported by several other project stakeholders as part of the consortium.
The project will harness world-leading expertise to develop key components for digital twins – virtual models of physical entities – that can be used to assess the condition of components of nuclear power plants, and their need for maintenance or remedial work.
4. Nuclear Hazards and Risks
In order to reassure regulators, operators and the public of nuclear power generation’s safety, the interaction of radioactive materials and radioactivity with human and physical environments is of great importance to the whole sector.
Research in this area seeks to directly influence decision-making in the nuclear industry on matters of:
- External hazards to nuclear installations and infrastructure from floods, climate and seismic and volcanic activity at a wide range of temporal and spatial scales
- Radiological hazards and radiochemistry - associated with contaminated land.
- Nuclear materials forensics and provenance
- Radionuclide source detection and analysis
5. New Materials Development
6. Waste and Fuel Management
A core part of the nuclear decommissioning process concerns the safe disposal and management of used fuel and waste products. Currently, the UK does not have a long-term storage solution, such as a Geological Disposal Facility, for its nuclear waste, so its interim storage requires significant monitoring and management. Due to the high radioactivity levels involved in storage environments, it is generally impractical or impossible either to take samples of material for analysis, or conduct in-situ monitoring and analysis.
Therefore, research in this area focuses on non-destructive assessment and analysis of materials in storage environments, particularly those where corrosion and other processes have occurred. Research also looks at the fuels used, with the aim of developing advanced, or accident tolerant, fuels to reduce overall lifecycle costs.
This theme includes:
- Safe and long-term storage of nuclear waste: waste disposal and effluent management
- Environmental remediation of radionuclides and microstructural analysis of crystalline solids
- New fuel development: advanced and accident tolerant fuels
- Analysis techniques: X-Ray Tomography, Raman Spectroscopy
7. Structural and Earthquake Engineering
Structural and Earthquake Engineering addresses the understanding of the fundamentals of how structures behave to be able to develop more reliable methods of analysis and design. This area includes:
- Testing and modelling in the field of control
- Seismic analysis for plant life extension, nuclear new build and advanced nuclear plants e.g. SMRs and AMRs
- Structural dynamics and non-linear engineering
- Earthquake engineering and probabilistic assessment of seismic risk
- Novel techniques for enhancing the resilience of critical infrastructure
- High-performance computing and hybrid (i.e., sub-structured computational and experimental) testing
- Soil-foundation interaction
Research in this area attempts to develop more holistic modelling techniques to reduce unnecessarily large safety margins and therefore reduce costs when designing a new build power plant, or making the case for life extension.
Many components in a nuclear power plant are inaccessible once installed, or too radioactive to handle. Therefore, remote inspection and testing is a key tool for monitoring performance and testing for defects.
Equally, radioactive waste materials are stored in large volume packages that are not designed to be accessed for assessment. Thus, there is a need to develop scanning and detection methods to be able to identify and characterise materials within structures.
Research in this area includes:
- Muon scattering tomography – non-destructive scanning technique utilising highly penetrating, naturally occurring cosmic muons to image the interior of closed objects form a safe distance.
- Ultrasonic array and imaging
- Radiation dose monitoring – devices for autonomous, real-time data collection in hazardous environments.
Due to the hazardous nature of some nuclear materials, it is sometimes difficult and time-consuming for human workers to carry out certain tasks. It is therefore safer and more efficient to use robots.
Whilst having the appropriate operating platform is important, the complementary data collection systems are equally necessary for time and cost savings to be realised.
Key research areas in this theme are:
- Remote inspection and characterisation
- Waste handling
- Cell decommissioning
- Safety & verifiability
- Underwater interventions
- UAV-based site monitoring
A major project in this area is the National Nuclear User Facility for Hot Robotics. This is an EPSRC funded facility to support UK academia and industry to deliver ground-breaking, impactful research in robotics and artificial intelligence for application in extreme and challenging nuclear environments.
10. Digital Engineering
Key research areas in this theme are:
- BIM and Digital Twins
- Big Data
- High Performance Computing
- Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)