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Advances in Materials Science and Technology Extend Nuclear Power's Clean Energy Benefits

Carley Willis

An overhead view of two Unit 2 turbines at the Darlington Refurbishment Project.  (Photo: R. Radell/Ontario Power Generation)

Advances in materials science and technology are helping to extend the lives of nuclear power plants, so countries can continue reaping their clean energy benefits.

“The cost of refurbishing a nuclear power plant for long term operation is much lower than building a new nuclear power plant,” said Ed Bradley, Team Leader in Nuclear Power Plant Operation and Engineering Support at the IAEA. “Long term operation of a nuclear power plant is an excellent opportunity to improve the sustainability of the current nuclear generation, since it is one of the most cost-effective sources of low carbon electricity. With the materials and technology that we have today compared to in the past, this has become an attractive and competitive option for many countries that are trying to decarbonize.”

Most nuclear power reactors were initially built to have an operating life of between 30 and 40 years. Extending the life of a nuclear power plant involves assessing an existing plant and determining if it can safely, securely and cost-effectively continue operating past its assumed retirement date. When a plant’s life is extended, operations can often continue for an additional 20 to 40 years.

“Given the extensive and thorough work done during a nuclear power plant’s initial siting, design and construction, as well as ageing management throughout operations, with certain upgrades and refurbishments, many nuclear power plants are capable of continuing to operate safely far past the original expected operation timeline,” said Robert Krivanek, Senior Safety Officer at the IAEA. However, some nuclear power plants have certain components and designs that cannot be easily or cost-effectively updated, which means they aren’t suitable for long term operation, he added.

One of the major challenges with an ageing nuclear power reactor is degradation. As a plant operates, its structures and components must withstand high temperatures, intense conditions and continuous operation, which, over time, can wear them down.

“Routine evaluation and replacement of parts can mitigate degradation, but, over time, this may not be the best approach economically, especially in the case of long term operation,” said Bradley.

New techniques and materials

The development of new techniques such as laser beam welding and friction stir welding, and materials such as duplex stainless steel, which provide better corrosion resistance, means some components are now able to safely last longer, making it more economically feasible for a nuclear power plant to continue operation.

Researchers are also developing a better understanding of how different operating conditions at a nuclear power plant can affect components and structures. For example, in the case of the CANDU reactors in Ontario, Canada, which went into service between 1970 and 1993, materials science research and component inspection has enabled some components to safely operate for an additional 10 years beyond their expected 30 years. A US $18.5 billion refurbishment programme will further extend operation for a second cycle of up to an additional 40 years. This means that some reactors built in the 1980s will be safely operating into the 2060s.

“Our reactors were built at a time when we didn’t have a lot of history with nuclear power plants, and the original expected lifetime of our design was conservatively estimated at 30 years,” said Fred Dermarkar, President and Chief Executive Officer at the CANDU Owners Group, an industry group of nuclear operators in seven countries using CANDU reactors. “As we operate these machines and get to know them and understand how they age, we can realize the tremendous benefit in continuing to operate long term.”

Dermarkar explained how state-of-the-art materials science is being used to predict material properties many years into the future. “CANDU reactors use components called pressure tubes to cool the fuel. In the reactor environment, pressure tube properties change with time due to high neutron flux, high temperature and pressure, and corrosion from the cooling water. To predict the changes from corrosion, for example, we start with irradiated pressure tubes that have been removed from operating reactors. We then apply techniques to artificially accelerate corrosion, and then perform extensive tests to determine the material properties of these artificially aged components. In this way, we are able to demonstrate how far we can take these components. Being one step ahead in the laboratory is how we are giving ourselves confidence that these components will continue to operate safely and reliably until their scheduled refurbishment date,” he said.

Big data and nuclear power

Researchers are now also exploring how to use big data to assess and determine the feasibility of long-term nuclear power plant operation. Big data is a term used to describe the analysis of extremely complex and large amounts of data collected very quickly and often in real time to identify trends and patterns and to predict outcomes and behaviours.

For the long term operation of a nuclear power plant, millions of data points are collected from a plant’s operation, including operating logs, reactor measurements and reported events. By mining these data using nuclear-related big data software, researchers can predict, using simulation tools, how a plant’s systems, structures and components may age under different conditions, and determine what may need replacing and roughly when that replacement would need to happen.

“Big data is not just the future; it’s happening now, and it’s gaining momentum,” said Dermarkar. “Our power plants are modernizing, and they are being equipped with more instruments that are portable and can be easily mounted to collect data and anticipate problems early on, enabling us to take early corrective actions. We are seeing real benefits: our plants are performing better today than at any time in their history.”

Helping countries to navigate the long term operation of nuclear power plants is part of the IAEA’s work. It develops internationally recognized safety standards, provides guidance through technical publications, such as the Ageing Management for Nuclear Power Plants: International Generic Ageing Lessons Learned publication, and shares expertise through the Safety Aspects of Long Term Operation (SALTO) peer review missions. The IAEA also coordinates a working group for operators, regulators and decision makers from around the world to discuss their experience and share good practices.

“The primary challenge with long term operation is to maintain the highest safety standards and to do this economically,” said Garry G Young, Director of Licence Renewal Services at Entergy Nuclear and Chair of the IAEA’s working group on long term operation. “Our working group is continually exploring ways to ensure efficiency and safety and to spread the results and advances that are being made in the field so that research and development is most beneficial to all.”

September, 2020
Vol. 61-3

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