Opportunities for Advanced Ceramics and Composites in the Nuclear Sector


  • Based on a plenary lecture presented at the ICACC, Daytona Beach, FL, USA, January 2011.

Author to whom correspondence should be addressed. e-mail: w.e.lee@imperial.ac.uk


Ceramics have played a crucial role in the development of fission based nuclear power, in glass & glass composite high level wasteforms, in composite cements to encapsulate intermediate level wastes (ILW) and also for oxide nuclear fuels based on UO2 and PuO2/UO2 mixed oxides. They are also used as porous filters with the ability to absorb radionuclides (RN) from air and liquids and are playing a key role in the cleanup at Fukushima. Non-oxides also find current fission applications including in graphite moderators and B4C control rods. Ceramics will continue to be significant in the near-term expansion of nuclear power via next-step developments of fuels with inert matrices or based on thoria and in wasteforms using alternative composite cements or single or multiphase ceramics that can host Pu & other difficult RN. Longer term advances for Generation IV reactors, which will operate at higher temperatures & with higher fuel burn-up require innovative fuel developments potentially via carbides & nitrides or composite fuel systems. Novel non-thermal (cement-like) and thermal techniques are currently being developed to treat some of the difficult legacy wastes. Non-thermally derived wasteforms developed from geopolymers, composite cements, hydroceramics, and phosphate-bonded ceramics and thermally derived wasteforms made by Hot Isostatic Pressing and fluidized bed steam reforming (FBSR) as well as vitrification techniques based on cold crucible melting (CCM), Joule-heater in-container melting and plasma melting (PM) are described. Future developments in waste treatment will be based on separation technologies for partitioning individual RN along with design & construction of RN-containing ceramic targets for inducing transmutation reactions. Near demonstration actinide-hosting ceramic wasteforms including multiphase Synroc systems are described. Opportunities also exist for ceramics in structural applications in Generation IV reactors such as composite SiC/SiC and C/C for fuel cladding and control rods and MAX phases and ultrahigh-temperature ceramics (UHTCs) may find near core fuel coating and cladding applications. Uses of ceramics in fusion reactor systems will be both functional (ceramic superconductors in magnet systems for plasma control and in Li silicate breeder blankets in tokamaks) and structural including as sapphire diagnostic windows, graphite diverters, and plasma facing C and UHTCs. In all these cases, performance is limited by poorly understood radiation damage and interface controlled processes, which demands a combined modeling/experimental approach.