Neutrons Advance Safety for the Long-Term Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel

Social acceptance of nuclear power is linked to the safe, permanent disposal of its used fuel and nuclear waste. Researchers at Western University use neutron beams to generate key knowledge about the long-term reliability of used-fuel storage containers—knowledge that has proven essential for the licensing of geologic repositories.

Spent nuclear fuel bundles would be placed in a steel canister and covered in 3 mm of electroplated copper.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) plans to bury Canada’s used fuel in a deep geologic repository. Qualification of a safer, lower-cost container for used nuclear fuel could save $2B in the cost of NWMO’s geologic repository, and similar impacts could be realized for other nuclear nations.

Prof. James Noël, an award-winning Distinguished Research Professor, is sponsored by the NWMO to conduct research on the suitability of these new containers, which are covered by approximately 3 mm of electrodeposited or cold-sprayed copper. Noël used neutron reflectometry at the former Canadian Neutron Beam Centre to obtain indispensable results on the integrity of the proposed containers under geologic conditions. His findings have been of great interest to the NWMO and its counterparts in other countries. As a result, he was invited to participate with NWMO in knowledge exchanges with NWMO’s counterparts in Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan on the development of more corrosion-resistant containers with lower risk of failure.

Noël was then invited to contribute to the licensing process to build the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company’s (SKB) geologic repository. That licensing decision was delayed pending answers to corrosion-related questions raised by the Swedish nuclear regulatory body, the Swedish Environmental Court, and the Government of Sweden: Is there a possibility of pitting corrosion driven by bisulfide ions? What is the susceptibility, nature, and maximum depth of micro-galvanic corrosion of copper? How might these factors impact the safety case?

SKB turned to Noël for answers and received enough science-based insights to satisfy the Court. The license was granted in January 2022.

Chemistry professor James Noël at Western University is a world expert on materials electrochemistry, corrosion, and degradation.

Such success has led to global interest in Noël’s corrosion research, for which access to neutron techniques, especially neutron reflectometry, is vital. Noël now holds a $3M NSERC Alliance grant with 3 other principal investigators (PIs), along with the NWMO and its counterparts in Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan, for research to help Canada and these other nations achieve their repositories. He also led a $12M Ontario Research Fund Research Excellence project with the NWMO and 13 other PIs from 5 universities to understand holistically the interdependent processes in a nuclear waste disposal system (i.e., chemistry, electrochemistry, transport processes, microbiology, surface science, materials engineering, civil engineering). Further, he is part of one of only seven 2020 New Frontiers Research Fund Transformation grants ($24M), which is funding the development of anti-corrosion coatings using a new method of binding to metal surfaces.

Noël uses neutron reflectometry to examine how well various coatings withstand corrosion; whether hydrogen absorption could cause embrittlement (hydrogen could be produced by corrosion or water radiolysis); and whether hydrogen molecules could form within the metal and damage the coatings. He uses neutron reflectometry to track changes in these parameters both in situ and non-destructively, and under changing physical, electrochemical, and environmental conditions. Neutron reflectometry is the only technique that has satisfactory sensitivity to hydrogen atoms for determining their quantities and locations within the coatings. He uses a variety of other neutron techniques as well, such as neutron depth profiling, imaging, and diffraction, to obtain complementary insights.

Noël is joined by Profs. Samantha Gateman and Lyudmila Goncharova at Western University, who also use neutron beams to advance their critical research projects on corrosion and the integrity of corrosion-resistant nuclear waste containers under geologic conditions. Gateman has been newly hired as an NWMO Research Chair in Radiation-Induced Chemistry, an appointment made possible by a $1.1M gift from NWMO. Access to neutron beams would enable her to study how stress, induced by thermally spraying metallic materials, impacts the resulting coating’s local corrosion reactivity.

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