Engineers at the University of Sheffield have developed new materials they believe could be used to help clean-up the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power stations.
They worked in collaboration with scientists in Ukraine to develop the materials that can simulate Lava-like Fuel Containing Materials (LFCMs) that are said to be obstructing decommissioning efforts at the nuclear disaster sites.
LFCMs are a mixture of highly radioactive molten nuclear fuel and building materials that fuse together during a nuclear meltdown.
It is believed to be the first time a close approximation of a real LFCM has been achieved.
Radioactive materials mixed with fuel cladding and other building materials in the reactors at Chernobyl and Fukushima are difficult and dangerous to remove from the sites and according to the researchers, if left untreated, the LFCMs pose an ongoing radiological safety risk to the local environment.
In the case of Chernobyl, the mixture of molten fuel, cladding, steel, concrete and sand formed nearly 100 tonnes of highly radioactive glass-like lava, which flowed through the nuclear power plant and has solidified into large masses.
Dr Claire Corkhill from the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering said: “Understanding the mechanical, thermal and chemical properties of the materials created in a nuclear meltdown is critical to help retrieve them, for example, if we don’t know how hard they are, how can we create the radiation-resistant robots required to cut them out?
“The major difficulty in understanding the real materials is that they are too hazardous to handle and although the Chernobyl accident happened over 33 years ago, we still know very little about these truly unique nuclear materials.
“Thanks to this research, we now have a much lower radioactivity simulant meltdown material to investigate, which is safe for our collaborators in Ukraine and Japan to research without the need for radiation shielding. Ultimately this will help advance the decommissioning operations at Chernobyl and also at Fukushima too.”