Strathclyde's Professor Rebecca Lunn & the ANRC

The Advanced Nuclear Research Centre (ANRC), as a 'Hub for Nuclear Research' at the University of Strathclyde, works with colleagues from various disciplines:

At the ANRC Showcase Event 2023Professor Becky Lunn, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Strathclyde, shared her thoughts with us on the challenges facing the Nuclear Sector and how by working with the University of Strathclyde, the nuclear industry can address some of the challenges it faces today and in the future.

Professor Becky Lunn.

Challenges in the Nuclear Sector

"I would say that there are probably three main challenges:

1. Decommissioning and Disposal

A huge challenge is cleaning up our legacy nuclear sites and decommissioning our existing sites. That means converting our wastes into safe stable forms, packaging them, and then ultimately disposing of them in a new geological disposal facility. We need to demonstrate we can tackle our historic legacy sites, and restore land back to common use that's currently in the nuclear sector, for the industry to move forward.

2. Nuclear New Build

We know, by 2050, we need to be meeting net zero carbon and nuclear power has a very big role to play in that; the transition to low carbon energy production will be difficult. Nuclear power has a large part to play in that and new nuclear power stations are being built. However, construction of nuclear power plants takes a long time and there'll be a period where we struggle to generate enough low carbon energy. Hence, we want to continue producing electricity from our existing nuclear power stations as long as it is safe to do so, before we decommission them and take our old fleet offline

3. Net Zero

For me the biggest challenge is to make sure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to ensure that new build reactors are designed to minimise future radioactive wastes and be easy and rapid to decommission. We need to learn from our previous legacy fleet and make sure that this time we design something from cradle to grave. Plants should be designed with recycling, reuse, and decommissioning in mind from the outset, so we don't end up with these very difficult and challenging facilities at the end of it."

Research at Strathclyde 

"Strathclyde does something quite unusual in nuclear - rather than focusing on nuclear material and nuclear fuel, which is what most of the UK sector works on, at Strathclyde we do a lot of work around extending the life of existing assets, having smart digital infrastructure, and thinking as well about the civil infrastructure in a plant, which is what I do in civil engineering.

 

Planned Minimisation of Waste

Most people are really geeky and interested in the actual power production and the reactor side but the vast majority of infrastructure on our nuclear plant is just huge amounts of civil infrastructure, lots of concrete, lots of steel. We need to think about how we design that into the future, so that we minimise any radioactive waste that is produced, we know exactly how we're going to handle that waste, and exactly how we're going to decommission those sites. It's planned in right from the outset.  I think that we have the skill set at Strathclyde, working with others around nuclear materials and robotics, to deal with that challenge.

 

Degrading Assets

Nuclear is an immensely complicated problem, particularly if you look at the legacy. We have the largest collection of different types of nuclear waste materials and exotic fuels in the world. We’ve tried lots of different things in both the defence sector and for the civil nuclear sector, over decades, and now we have to deal with the radioactive materials we’ve created.  Those materials are stored in degraded civil assets. So, old buildings, stores, and vaults that are gradually deteriorating. These structures were not built to last 80 to 100 years and it makes dealing with the hazardous materials within them much more dangerous, because the structures themselves are now fragile.

 

Working with partners and collaborators

So, to solve these problems, we need to work across the UK, with other departments that are experts in this.  For example, I work with Sheffield University who look at vitrification of wastes. Vitrification is turning very hazardous high level wastes into glass to make them stable over long times. At Strathclyde we're looking at grouting waste materials to stop any small airborne particles being released when wastes are picked up and removed. Then we're working with Sheffield University to determine whether we can turn these grouted wastes into a glass that is safe and will be stable for 1000s of years."