3 February 2022

Fukushima simulant material to provide major boost to cleanup effort

A new simulation of the most dangerous radioactive debris remaining at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that could provide a huge boost to the cleanup operation, has been developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

Damaged buildings in a coastal region of East Japan following a tsunami
Damage caused by a tsunami that hit the east coast of Japan in 2011
  • University of Sheffield researchers have developed a new simulation of the most dangerous radioactive fuel debris remaining in Fukushima’s nuclear reactors
  • Simulant material could help officials learn more about the dangerous debris for the first time and design safe strategies for its removal
  • Removal and safe storage of the debris is thought to be one of the biggest challenges in the decommissioning process, almost 11 years on from the disaster

A new simulation of the most dangerous radioactive debris remaining at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that could provide a huge boost to the cleanup operation, has been developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

In the study, published in Nature Materials Degradation, researchers led by Professor Claire Corkhill from the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering in collaboration with the Swiss Light Source have developed a simulation of the extremely radioactive fuel debris inside Fukushima’s damaged reactors. It is the first study to evaluate the whereabouts of plutonium in the fuel debris.

The simulant material can now be used by officials to learn more about the chemical makeup and mechanical properties of the debris for the first time and help them to design safe strategies for its removal, almost 11 years on from the disaster.

Removal and safe storage of the radioactive debris that remains in Fukushima’s three reactors is thought to be one of the biggest challenges in the decommissioning process. As long as it remains there, the fuel material requires cooling, generating millions of cubic metres of radioactive water. Controversially, this contaminated water is destined for release into the sea.

But, with the debris being so highly radioactive, it is too dangerous for humans and even some robots to get close to. This has meant that very little is known about its chemical makeup, slowing down the cleanup operation and allowing more contaminated water to accumulate.

A robotic survey of the debris in reactor one has now been launched by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, and together with the new simulant material developed by the Sheffield researchers, could be used to better understand the debris left behind by the disaster.

Professor Claire Corkhill, Chair in Nuclear Material Degradation at the University of Sheffield, said: “Using what is known about the materials within the Fukushima reactors - for example, the fuel, cladding and concrete type, we were able to develop a recipe for the fuel debris. 

“We heated it to the extremely high temperatures experienced during the accident, producing a low-radioactivity version of what we think the fuel debris is really like. In actual fact, it is not too dissimilar from the material generated during the Chernobyl accident.

“Investigating this material with extremely bright microscopes has allowed us to understand the potential distribution of plutonium within the fuel, which is of utmost importance to the retrieval operations.”

The simulant material has been developed as part of an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded project in collaboration with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, through the UK-Japan civil nuclear partnership research scheme. It used one of the brightest microscopes in the world, the Swiss Light Source, to study the simulant materials.

The research, led by Professor Corkhill at the University of Sheffield, is helping the fuel debris retrieval process and will support decisions about what to do with the material when it is retrieved.


The study, Chemical characterisation of degraded nuclear fuel analogues simulating the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, is published in Nature Materials Degradation. Read the paper.

Contact

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.