Monitoring the safety of nuclear power plants

SCK•CEN plays a significant role in the safe operation of nuclear power plants both in Belgium and abroad. We have built up extensive expertise with respect to the ageing processes of nuclear reactors as a result of our research into fuels and irradiated materials. Ionising radiation in a reactor, for example, can deteriorate structural materials and cause cracks.

Our research is conducted in our BR2 reactor and the laboratory for high and medium level activity (LHMA). Initially we irradiate materials in BR2. The LHMA then analyses the damage and ageing processes. The test results can then be used to accurately predict the service life of nuclear reactors.

Monitoring programme

We receive requests from nuclear power plants at home and abroad to assess the steel components within their reactor vessels. Authorities and operators can then make informed judgements as to whether to continue operating power plants on the basis of our conclusions. The international demand for our advanced monitoring programme is increasing sharply.

The monitoring programme is developed on the basis of test pieces made from identical material as the reactor vessel and welding material. These test pieces are located in capsules between the reactor and reactor vessel. By removing and analysing the capsules at set times we can monitor the deterioration of vessel materials and predict possible future damage.

Longer fuel service life

Our nuclear fuel research enables us to advise energy producers on safe ways in which to extend the service life of their fuels. This reduces the amount of radioactive waste and enables us to use uranium reserves in current reactors with maximum efficiency.

By obtaining a clear understanding of the behaviour of the fuel and develo pment of its properties we have created a situation in which less than 1 in 1 million fuel rods are defective. If a rod becomes faulty we can analyse it and learn more about the causes of these defects, thereby continually improving materials and processes.