Context

In 2007 Materials UK highlighted the following themes in their report on priorities for nuclear materials research:

  • The need to predict with confidence the behaviour and properties of materials in demanding environments.
  • The value of accelerating the design and characterisation of improved materials.
  • The great opportunities afforded by new scientific developments to more effectively achieve the above objectives.
  • The need to refresh, develop and sustain key UK expertise and facilities in all elements of the supply chain in a cost effective way.

The report states:

"For advanced fission reactor systems the main driver is for materials research to develop new materials which are resistant to deleterious dimensional and mechanical property changes caused by exposure to high temperature and high fluences of neutrons [...]. For fusion, most of the systems are different. However, there is a wide range of commonalities in the materials issues. There is an overlap in the classes of materials employed and in the effects responsible for materials and component degradation and the research methods - experiments and modelling - are similar for a broad range of issues."

      and:

"Bombardment by neutrons, characteristic of fission and fusion power plants, gives rise initially to atomic scale changes in the internal microstructure of a material, primarily through displacing atoms and generating helium and hydrogen atoms by transmutation reactions. The effects then propagate up through the length scales to generate a series of further changes. The primary research challenge is that of passing reliably, via understanding and modelling, from observations at the small temporal and spatial scales characteristic of such changes to the large and long scales characteristic of the in-service environment. It is important to maximise the amount of information which can be inferred from small samples and modelling."

This project is aimed at exactly that: maximising the amount of information which can be gained from small samples and from modelling, to accelerate development and selection of materials for advanced fission and fusion power reactors.

One of the key background drivers of this project is the urgency of the timescales for the materials research needed to bring fusion and next-generation fission into reality. It is hoped that Gen. IV fission reactors will be coming on-line in about 2030, and DEMO in 2030-35, so that the materials specifications for design will be needed by about 2020. This gives us little more than 10 years to move from the current situation, where some materials types for key structural roles have been proposed, and where some limited theoretical and experimental understanding (often of "model materials" only) has been gained, to one where design engineers can have reasonable confidence that materials that can do the job have been identified, are well-characterised over the lifetime of their use, and are available in the forms required.

Positive action is needed very urgently if the UK is to keep and increase its stake in these key technologies for future energy supply, and is to train the future scientists and engineers needed to ensure that, at a minimum, the UK will not simply be a "passive customer" of overseas expertise.