Tag Archives: nuclear energy

Mapping atoms

Typical atom maps of P, Cu, Mn, Ni & Si (clockwise from bottom centre) in 65x65x142 nm sample of steel from Styman et al, 2015.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the opening plenary talk at the NNL Sci-Tec conference [‘The disrupting benefit of innovation’ on May 23rd, 2018].  One of the innovations discussed at the conference was the applications of atom probe tomography for understanding the mechanisms underpinning material behaviour.  Atom probe tomography produces three-dimensional maps of the location and type of individual atoms in a sample of material.  It is a destructive technique that uses a high energy pulse to induce field evaporation of ions from the tip of a needle-like sample.  A detector senses the position of the ions and their chemical identity is found using a mass spectrometer.  Only small samples can be examined, typically of the order of 100nm.

A group led by Jonathan Hyde at NNL have been exploring the use of atom probe tomography to understand the post-irradiation annealing of weld material in reactor pressure vessels and to examine the formation of bubbles of rare gases in fuel cladding which trap hydrogen causing material embrittlement.  A set of typical three-dimensional maps of atoms is shown in the thumb-nail from a recent paper by the group (follow the link for the original image).

It is amazing that we can map the location of atoms within a material and we are just beginning to appreciate the potential applications of this capability.  As another presenter at the conference said: ‘Big journeys begin with Iittle steps’.

BTW it was rewarding to see one of our alumni from our CPD course [see ‘Leadership is like shepherding’ on May 10th, 2017] presenting this work at the conference.


Styman PD, Hyde JM, Parfitt D, Wilford K, Burke MG, English CA & Efsing P, Post-irradiation annealing of Ni-Mn-Si-enriched clusters in a neutron-irradiated RPV steel weld using atom probe tomography, J. Nuclear Materials, 459:127-134, 2015.

The disrupting benefit of innovation

Most scientific and technical conferences include plenary speeches that are intended to set the agenda and to inspire conference delegates to think, innovate and collaborate.  Andrew Sherry, the Chief Scientist of the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) delivered a superb example last week at the NNL SciTec 2018 which was held at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool on the waterfront.  With his permission, I have stolen his title and one of his illustrations for this post.  He used a classic 2×2 matrix to illustrate different types of change: creative change in the newspaper industry that has constantly redeveloped its assets from manual type-setting and printing to on-line delivery via your phone or tablet; progressive change in the airline industry that has incrementally tested and adapted so that modern commercial aircraft look superficially the same as the first jet airliner but represent huge advances in economy and reliability; inventive change in Liverpool’s Albert Dock that was made redundant by container ships but has been reinvented as a residential, tourism and business district.  The fourth quadrant, he reserved for the civil nuclear industry in the UK which requires disruptive change because its core assets are threatened by the end-of-life closure of all existing plants and because its core activity, supplying electrical power, is threatened by cheaper alternatives.

At the end of last year, NNL brought together all the prime nuclear organisations in the UK with leaders from other sectors, including aerospace, construction, digital, medical, rail, robotics, satellite and ship building at the Royal Academy of Engineering to discuss the drivers of innovation.  They concluded that innovation is not just about technology, but that successful innovation is driven by five mutually dependent themes that are underpinned by enabling regulation:

  1. innovative technologies;
  2. culture & leadership;
  3. collaboration & supply chain;
  4. programme and risk management; and
  5. financing & commercial models.

SciTec’s focus was ‘Innovation through Collaboration’, i.e. tackling two of these themes, and Andrew tasked delegates to look outside their immediate circle for ideas, input and solutions [to the existential threats facing the nuclear industry] – my words in parentheses.

Innovative technology presents a potentially disruptive threat to all established activities and we ignore it at our peril.  Andrew’s speech was wake up call to an industry that has been innovating at an incremental scale and largely ignoring the disruptive potential of innovation.  Are you part of a similar industry?  Maybe it’s time to check out the threats to your industry’s assets and activities…


Sherry AH, The disruptive benefit of innovation, NNL SciTec 2018 (including the graphic & title).

McGahan AM, How industries change, HBR, October 2004.

Massive engineering

Last month I was at the Photomechanics 2018 conference in Toulouse in France.  Photomechanics is the science of using photons to measure deformation and displacements in anything, from biological cells to whole engineering structures, such as bridges or powerstations [see for example: ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ posted on November 18th, 2015].  I am interested in the challenges created by the extremes of scale and environmental conditions; although on this occasion we presented our research on addressing the challenges of industrial applications, in the EU projects INSTRUCTIVE [see ‘Instructive update‘ on October 4th, 2017] and MOTIVATE [see ‘Brave New World‘ posted on January 10th, 2018].

It was a small conference without parallel sessions and the organisers were more imaginative than usual in providing us with opportunities for interaction.  At the end of first day of talks, we went on a guided walking tour of old Toulouse.  At the end of second day, we went to the Toulouse Aerospace Museum and had the chance to go onboard Concorde.

I stayed an extra day for an organised tour of the Airbus A380 assembly line.  Only the engine pylons are made in Toulouse.  The rest of the 575-seater plane is manufactured around Europe and arrives in monthly road convoys after travelling by sea to local ports.  The cockpit, centre, tail sections of the double-deck fuselage travel separately on specially-made trucks with each 45m long wing section following on its own transporter.  It takes about a month to assemble these massive sections.  This is engineering on a huge scale performed with laser precision (laser systems are used to align the sections).  The engines are also manufactured elsewhere and transported to Toulouse to be hung on the wings.  The maximum diameter of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines, being attached to the plane we saw, is approximately same as the fuselage diameter of an A320 airplane.

Once the A380 is assembled and its systems tested, then it is flown to another Airbus factory in Germany to be painted and for the cabin to be fitted out to the customer’s specification.  In total, 11 Airbus factories in France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom are involved in producing the A380; this does not include the extensive supply chain supporting these factories.  As I toured the assembly line and our guide assailed us with facts and figures about the scale of the operation, I was thinking about why the nuclear power industry across Europe could not collaborate on this scale to produce affordable, identical power stations.  Airbus originated from a political decision in the 1970s to create a globally-competitive European aerospace industry that led to a collaboration between national manufacturers which evolved into the Airbus company.  One vision for fusion energy is a globally dispersed manufacturing venture that would evolve from the consortium that is currently building the ITER experiment and planning the DEMO plant.  However, there does not appear to be any hint that the nuclear fission industry is likely to follow the example of the European aerospace industry to create a globally-competitive industry producing massive pieces of engineering within a strictly regulated environment.

There was no photography allowed at Airbus so today’s photograph is of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse.

A school trip to Japan

Teachers, students and the parents gather outside their high school one Saturday at the beginning of August.  They chatter anxiously as they wait for everyone to arrive and while bags are loaded into the school mini-bus.  Four teachers and eight students are wearing specially-made name badges with a small silicon chip in one corner.  There are lots of hugs and kisses as these twelve people climb into the mini-bus for the journey to Charles de Gaulle airport.  At Charles de Gaulle airport they go through the usual security procedures, taking off their jackets and coats, which then go through the scanner, before boarding the 12-hour flight to Tokyo.  They arrive tired and bedraggled early on Sunday afternoon.  The following day they visit the French embassy in Toyko and are given a guided tour after passing through a security scanner in the entrance.  On Tuesday they are driven from Tokyo, northwards along the Pacific coast, through Iwaki City to the railway station at Tomioka, which was completely swept away by the tsunami in March 2011.  They have all seen the pictures of the wave overwhelming everthing in its path; but it’s difficult to imagine it as they are shown around.  The next stop is the Miyakoji district of Tamura City whose residents were the first to be allowed to return in April 2014 after being evacuated following the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  The students and teachers stay for two nights in the homes of students from Fukishima high school.  Their hosts are wearing matching name-badges with little silicon chip on them.  On Wednesday they visited Aizu and then a peach farm in northern Fukushima Prefecture on Thursday; before starting their journey home on Friday.

As they leave Fukushima Prefecture, their name badges were collected, and the silicon chips sent off for analysis.  The chips were sensors that detect gamma rays with a sensitivity of 0.1 uSv/hr [micro Sieverts per hour] which record hourly dose rates with a date stamp.  The results for the French school party are shown in the graphic – my account above describes an actual visit mage in August 2015.  The name badges with an onboard sensor are known as D-shuttles and the students were participating in a study that has been published recently by Professor Hayano of the University of Tokyo.  The events described above are highlighted in the D-shuttle data in the figure on-line here.  The highest reading from the D-shuttle, on August 2nd, is due to cosmic radiation received during the 12-hour flight from Paris to Tokyo.

There has been extensive monitoring of Fukushima residents.  In 2012, more than 30,000 people were given full-body scans at Hirata Central Hospital and 100% of children and 99% of adults were below the scanner’s detection limit of 100 Bq per body, which compares with the average body burden of an adult male in Japan of 535 Bq per body found in 1964.  For more on types of radioactivity see my post ‘Hiding in the basement’ on December 18th, 2013.


Hayano R, Measurement and communication: what worked and what did not in Fukushima, Annals of the ICRP, (45):14-22, 2016.

Hayano RS, Tsubokura M, Miyazaki M et al, Internal radiocesium contamination of adults and children in Fukushima 7 to 20 monts after the Fukushima NPP accident as measured by extensive whole-body-counter survey. Proc. Japan Acad. Ser. B 89:157-163, 2013.

Uchiyama M, Nakamura Y, Kobayashi S, Analysis of bidy-burden measurements of 137Cs and 40K in a Japanese group over a period of 5 years following the Chernobyl accident, Health Phys., 71:320-325, 1996.


A Sievert is the ionising effect of 1 Joule of energy on 1 kilogram of biological tissue.

A Becquerel is a measure of radioactivity equivalent to the  quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second.

Image: http://www.fukushima-dialogues.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/schema-D-shuttle-porte.png