Leading nuclear fuels and materials science expert talks about what has to be done to get ready to build them

Sue Ion (EPSRC)(NucNet): NucNet Editor Mathieu Carey talks to Dame Sue Ion OBE * about the future of materials science and the emergence of China and India as global nuclear energy players.

NucNet – Firstly, you have spoken very positively about the future of material science worldwide and its increased importance to the nuclear energy industry…

Ion – Yes, there are two reasons why it is important. First, we are looking at a new generation of reactors and their associated fuel cycles. Material science expertise has always been crucial to utilities and vendors, and we will quickly need to develop this even more. Having a good cadre of highly competent, highly qualified material scientists to help spot, anticipate and analyse problems when they occur – which they inevitably will – is hugely important.

Second, we want to extend the lives of many of the existing plants, especially the light water reactor systems. In the UK, we are trying to extend the lives of the AGRs, but they have a limit, come what may, whereas one can anticipate utilities trying to push LWRs beyond 60 years, and maybe to 80 years. There, we have to understand properly the long-term aging effects, such as irradiation damage and irradiation embrittlement on nickel-based materials and so forth.

So, there are two sets of challenges. One is to understand the materials which are used in construction now, and be able to anticipate problems. Then, there is a challenge in trying to understand today’s materials being used in a much harsher environment than was originally anticipated, then being able to provide the security and safety that the regulators would like, in order to continue licensing.

NucNet – With regards to R&D, how far behind is the UK compared with countries such as France and the US? What are the problems?

Ion – In the UK, we need to re-engage properly with the international community because for the last 7 or 8 years we have been passengers in the Gen-IV community. We have sent officials to wherever everyone was meeting, but we have not been proactive. We stopped working proactively when BNFL finally wound down in 2005-06. But having said that, the Americans also didn’t push fast reactor research that much for a period of about 20 years, ever since reprocessing became a ‘no-no’. Now of course they have strongly re-engaged.

France was by far and away the most advanced European nation on fast reactor R&D. Russia has always maintained fast reactor research at quite a high level, and then the Chinese and Indians have had fast reactors as part of their ongoing portfolio, both building prototype fast reactor systems.

The UK had a great deal of historical experience, given the fact we had the prototype fast reactor (PFR) and the Dounreay fast reactor (DFR) at Dounreay, and were participants within the European Fast Reactor Programme. We had expertise in the BNFL family, within universities and companies like Babcock and others, plus a great deal of archive material which was relevant to future Gen-IV programmes, provided it was refreshed and rejuvenated in short order. Otherwise, you lose the experts who can understand what was done historically and translate it.

NucNet – You mentioned China and India. How important is it that these countries develop their own indigenous technologies?

Ion – I think it is a natural consequence of becoming big fleet operators, if you take a look back at what has happened to countries which have a significant nuclear programme. Even though they may have imported the technology initially from elsewhere, such as Japan who took the technology from General Electric and Westinghouse, now very much a global player in its own right with advanced reactor design. Toshiba actually bought Westinghouse in the end, and the country itself is maintaining long-term programmes in Gen-IV- type technology.

You have South Korea who imported technology from the Canadians and Westinghouse, and became self-sufficient in its own right with some of the large components of the global supply chain coming out of South Korea from Doosan. They advanced the South Korean plant as a perfectly good system in its own right. France is the classic example of technology transfer from Westinghouse becoming an internationally global competitor.

India had its own indigenous programme anyway, as did China, but both have imported the best technology from overseas, and I would expect that within a twenty to twenty-five year time frame, they will become self-sufficient within their own right and become very significant competitors.

NucNet – Domestically in India, does their grid pose a problem to this progress, given that it is not as developed as it is in China?

Ion – My guess is that in the long-term, probably not. When you see the plans for the numbers of units that they are seeking to deploy and the gigawatts that implies, then by default, they’ve got to do something about the grid as well. I think they will find ways to uprate their grid to be able to accommodate the large modern plants of the Gen-III+ design. They will probably also look to play quite heavily in the end on Gen-IV – they will look to develop reactors of a much smaller capability, to accommodate rural grids and also reactors that are available more flexibly on a main grid.

NucNet – What game-changers might we see on the horizon? Might we see anything in the next 10 years?

Ion – Within that time, probably not much, but within the Gen-IV family, we might see some game-changing concepts in terms of linkage in high temperature reactors, and in terms of our understanding of the materials that will go into them, their mode of operation and their coupling with hydrogen economies and process heat economies.

So there are very different rationales for designing a nuclear plant. We’ll probably see some game-changing concepts there, and we might see some new concepts as we push for very high burn-up out of the materials we’ve got in today’s reactors.

We’ve used zircalloy from time immemorial, since Admiral Rickover’s (inventor of the nuclear submarine) days, so maybe we’ll actually see a strong push for some form of ceramic sheath as opposed to a metallic sheath. That will take some time to deliver, but it’s worth it, because today’s Gen-III+ plants will be around for 60 years. You can afford to do quite Gen-III+ a bit of R&D to guarantee that at high performance.

NucNet – Are there any technological challenges to the UK industry on the horizon?

Ion – In the UK, the challenges are more about logistics and project management, initiating an emergent supply chain, rather than technological per se. It is more about getting people to understand the long-term supply issues, because for both of the designs on offer in the UK, the Areva EPR and the Westinghouse AP1000, there is little to be done in the way of concepts or materials.

NucNet - How would you interpret the recent UK Health and Safety Executive feedback for the EPR design?

Ion – The safety authorities will find nuances which the vendors will have to address. However, these are readily surmountable, and can be sorted out in terms of how they finish off the detailed design… and also the justification behind the detailed design. There is quite a lot of clarification in the detail, as opposed to fundamentally changing the design. Although, both vendors as I understand will have made some design changes.

Sometimes, the challenges have arisen because the regulator wouldn’t necessarily have considered all aspects in the way that the vendors have. For example, Westinghouse are subject to licensing in the United States where they have a completely different approach to regulation. So, it’s quite often about re-justifying, using more facts and making sure the regulators have all the evidence available, which they may not have had before.

On the things that have changed technically – the plants have been built with the same materials as the Gen-III plants. We are still using alloy 690, the nickel-based material in quite a lot of the plants. Traditional low-alloy steels, stainless steels throughout the plant, and industry over time has understood how those materials perform and are viable for long term service. But there are always issues associated with them. Particularly the fact that the materials, which will be used now, the new vintage materials: many of them are produced by slightly different methods, particularly through steel-making, than the original materials operating in today’s plants.

When it comes to manufacturing, you are looking for validation of new component supplies. Some of the components might be different, even if made from similar materials, but the suppliers will be different because historically they were a vertically-integrated industry with much of the supply coming from within the companies themselves, meaning it was under the control of the reactor vendors. This is no longer the case; or it is to a certain extent with the Areva design, but not the Westinghouse design. So, supply chains grow globally and the reactor vendors qualify new players into the game to produce high-quality, qualified, validated components. There have got to be a lot of materials qualification tests to support acceptance of components as they are made.

Some of the methods of manufacturing are very different. There are quite a lot of large components; integrally forged piping etc. which weren’t there in the previous generation of reactors.

NucNet – A couple of weeks ago, the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre was established in the UK…

Ion – That was a really great piece of news, and also the manner in which it was finally delivered, because it brought together the strength of two of our strongest universities – Sheffield and Manchester. Sheffield is on the manufacturing side, building on the back of an already established manufacturing centre which they have had for many years with Boeing, and other links with manufacturers. At Manchester the focus is on the research angle and they have got the UK’s biggest concentration of nuclear engineering and science R&D.

NucNet – According to a recent study, public acceptance would improve with technological improvements. Surely this stands to reason?

Ion – When the public see excellent progress is being made on the technological front, and things being introduced, which do have a positive safety and security implication, it gives them confidence that people are looking for continuous improvement. But the other thing too is that we live in a very different world.

In the developed world, we are totally dependent on electricity 24/7 to run everything. We rely on IT systems for control of much of what we do. The telecommunications industry would collapse if there were no power, whereas back in the 1970s, that wasn’t the case. We could survive without electricity for significant periods of time and still carry on. So, there is a security of energy supply issue, where people are looking at the supply of fossil materials and where they are housed – in the Middle East and Russia etc. – and also the carbon issues of which people are very aware.  The combination of security of energy supply issues and the climate change issue put nuclear into a completely different landscape from what it in was over the past 30 years.

NucNet – Do we still have another 30 to 40 years to wait until fusion?

Ion – When I am challenged on this by someone saying that fusion has always been forty years away, what I say is that the challenges are different. When it was 40 years ago before, people were looking to try and answer some of the detailed physics nuances, and make sure they could try and get sustainable plasma. That is no longer an issue: people know and understand that we can achieve the sorts of plasmas and reactions that are required to drive a fusion plant. The issues now are all about engineering and materials, to make sure that the plant that you would build, is capable, available and reliable on a 24/7–365 basis, which is a completely different set of challenges.

NucNet – Do you consider there to be a nuclear renaissance at the moment, or has this been overhyped?

Ion – I don’t think it’s been overhyped. Both mainstream global vendors are busy: with the plants that Westinghouse is building in China, and those that Areva is building in Finland and France. Both are recruiting very, very heavily on the global stage with engineers to support their anticipated long-term plans. Westinghouse has a few orders in the United States. Some of the orders are pushing back a little in time, but they are nevertheless real orders. When you look at the intentions of countries like Brazil, and the need to refresh the European fleet in 15 to 25 years, and the demands of new nations who historically haven’t been anywhere near nuclear, such as the UAE and others: yes, the global renaissance is indeed real.

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* (bio) Sue Ion, is a visiting professor at Imperial College London and chair of the UK Fusion Advisory Board.  She was British Nuclear Fuel Ltd's Executive Director of Technology 2002-2006.  She graduated from Imperial with first class honors in metallurgy in 1976 and went on to complete her PhD in the same subject in 1979. She is the UK's representative on the International Atomic Energy Agency Standing Advisory Group on Nuclear Energy and was awarded the OBE in 2002 for services to the nuclear industry.

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