Nuclear Energy and Safety Research Division
The Paul Scherrer Institute has a long tradition in energy research. With respect to nuclear energy, PSI has a unique position in Switzerland. This is due to its heavy infrastructure, namely the Hot Laboratory with so-called hot cells, well equipped and shielded zones for work and research on radioactive material. In addition, the nuclear energy division takes advantage of PSI's large facilities like the Swiss Light Source (SLS) and the Swiss Spallation Neutron Source (SINQ).
Based on this infrastructure and the know-how of its collaborators the Division is involved in three main topics of research: Safety of currently operating light-water reactors, safety characteristics of future reactor concepts and related fuel cycles, and long-term safety of deep geological repositories for nuclear wastes of all kind.
The work is being done on behalf of the Federal Government and in close cooperation with the Swiss nuclear utilities, the national waste management organization, Nagra, and the national regulatory authority, ENSI. It also includes scientific services for the nuclear power plants. Most of the research is connected with international projects on a multi- or bi-national cooperation basis.
Recent News from NES
Mobility of Dissolved Gases in Smectite under Saturated Conditions
Mobility of water, sodium and gas molecules within a smectite nanopore
Various gases are produced by metal corrosion and organic material degradation in deep gelological repository for nuclear waste. To ensure repository safety, it's important to demonstrate that gases can be dissipated by diffusion in host rocks and prevent pressure buildup in repository near field. Smectite mineral particles form a pore network that is usually saturated with water, making gas diffusion the primary transport mechanism. Molecular simulations have shown that the diffusion of gases through the pore network depends on various factors, including pore size and temperature. For instance, smaller pores and lower temperatures tend to reduce gas diffusion. Interestingly, hydrogen and helium have been found to diffuse faster than argon, carbon dioxide, and methane, possibly due to interactions with the clay surface and water molecules. Ultimately, the diffusion coefficients for different gases and pore sizes can be predicted using an empirical relationship, which is useful for macroscopic simulations of gas transport.
Approximate Computing for Nuclear Reactor Simulations
During the last decades, computing power has been subject to tremendous progress due to the shrinking of transistor size as predicted by Moore’s law. However, as we approach the physical limits of this scaling, alternative techniques have to be deployed to increase computing performance. In this regard, the next big advance is envisioned to be the usage of approximate computing hardware based on field-programmable gate arrays and/or digital-analogue in-memory circuits. Such approximate computing can provide disproportional gain (x1000) in energy efficiency and/or execution time for acceptable loss of simulation accuracy. This could be highly beneficial in order to accelerate computational intensive simulations such as reactor core analyses with higher resolution multi-physics models. On the other hand, the execution of programming codes on low-precision hardware may result in inadequate outcomes due to quality degradation and/or algorithm divergence. To address these questions, studies on the stability and the performance of advanced reactor simulation algorithms as function of reduced floating-point arithmetic precision are being conducted at the laboratory for reactor physics and thermal-hydraulics. Results obtained so far indicate a large room for the acceleration of nuclear engineering applications using mixed-precision hardware. Therefore, research is now being enlarged towards assessing multiprecision computing methods for reactor core simulations with higher spatial resolution.
Evaluation of European electricity supply resilience
The increasing risk of extended electricity supply disruptions and severe electricity price fluctuations strongly motivate an evaluation of electricity supply resilience. In this direction, this research proposes a multicriteria decision support framework to assess resilience at a country level, based on three major dimensions: Resist, Restabilize and Recover. In total, 35 European countries are ranked according to their performance on 17 indicators, through a synergy of MCDA methods, techniques and communication protocols. The assessment framework has been extended to incorporate the Choquet Integral method, in order to accommodate potentially interacting pairs of criteria and negate their arbitrary effects on the final evaluation results. The analysis incorporates country data from credible international databases, as well as the preference information of a European energy expert. The results are envisaged to support energy policymakers in Europe and provide guidelines and areas for improvement at a country level.
A unique environment for research on highly radioactive materials
PSI has a unique (worldwide) environment for the investigation of highly radioactive / toxic materials:
> Materials (different fuel types, very high burn-up, different cladding materials, materials activated in SINQ).
> The hot lab with advanced tools for microsample analysis and preparation.
> The large-scale equipment for advanced material analysis.
This unique combination at PSI allows us to meet the needs of our industrial partners to improve plant safety / efficiency, up to fundamental research.
The quantitative distribution of fission products over the cross-section of a pellet with a shielded electron probe microanalyzer (EPMA) used for verification analysis of the material behavior to validate the model. In this context, Xe behavior during transients/failure (LOCA, RIA) is an important safety parameter that can’t be measured with the EPMA at the periphery. Microstructural EBSD investigations on a microsample extend the information horizon, which is deepened at the microXAS beamline by detailed X-ray analyses.
ETSON Workshop at PSI Towards Artificial Intelligence Informed Nuclear Safety Assessments
Data science (DS) and artificial intelligence (AI) methods opens up an immense range of new opportunities and challenges in the context of continuously enhancing the complex methodologies used as basis for nuclear safety assessments. To this aim, following discussions in the ETSON Technical Board on Reactor Safety, the PSI laboratory for reactor physics and thermal-hydraulics organized on October 20-21, 2022, an international workshop to review and discuss DS/AI within ETSON, the network of European research and expert organizations providing scientific support to national nuclear authorities. With close to 40 participants, the workshop, organized as a hybrid meeting, allowed to put in evidence that similarly as at PSI, a wide and growing range of developments with integration of DS/AI methods are currently taking place in order to complement and/or inform nuclear safety analysis methodologies.
“More objectivity would be helpful”
The current energy debate could do with more facts and less gut feeling – argue Thomas J. Schmidt, renewables expert, and Andreas Pautz, nuclear energy specialist.
Award winning work on high-resolution X-ray radiography methods for boiling experiments at high pressure.
Light Water Reactors (LWRs) such as the ones operating in Switzerland work at relatively high temperatures and pressures. As a consequence, thermal-hydraulics experiments investigating relevant LWRs phenomena at prototypical conditions require test sections with relatively thick steel walls. This poses significant challenges for the implementation of suitable instrumentation to capture phenomena of interest, such as the flow regimes during transition from liquid to steam. The characterization of flow regimes in the presence of boiling is rather complex, and their better understanding would allow to develop mathematical modeling tools that can be used to optimize equipment and better assess safety margins. To perform in-situ measurements of the boiling process under high-pressure conditions, the team of authors from PSI, ETH, and the University of Michigan has developed a new high-fidelity and high-speed imaging system based on x-ray radiography, which provides high-resolution details on the boiling process while being non-intrusive. Since the instrumentation is located outside of the test section, it has also the advantage that can be easily moved to take measurements in different region of the test sections.
CASH+ solid solution cement model
A new incrementally extendable thermodynamic model, CASH+, was developed, aimed at accurately describing equilibrium composition, solubility, and elemental uptake of C-A-S-H gel-like phases at varying chemical conditions in cement systems. Cement is widely used as matrix and backfill for low and intermediate level waste. Calcium-Aluminum-Silicate Hydrates (C-A-S-H) are the most important binding phases in cement. They are also responsible for the initial entrapment of radionuclides via sorption or solid solution formation mechanisms. Therefore, the thermodynamic modelling of C-A-S-H stability, solubility and interaction with radionuclides in cement porewater is crucial for understanding hydration, blending, degradation of cement-based materials and for the performance assessment of cementitious repositories.
Hydrogen-induced softening effect in zirconium alloys
The fuel used for nuclear energy production is normally enclosed in zirconium-based cladding tubes that constitute the first barrier between the radioactive material and the environment. In water-moderated reactors, cladding tubes tend to corrode, generating hydrogen as side product. The study of the hydrogen embrittlement in zirconium alloys is of high relevance for the industry.
Depending on temperature, local hydrogen concentration, and local stress conditions, different hydrogen-induced embrittlement mechanisms can be active in the cladding material: in certain conditions hydrogen in solid solution might cause material softening through a mechanism known as hydrogen enhanced localized plasticity (HELP).
With the goal of determining the conditions necessary to activate the HELP effect in zirconium alloys, samples have been evaluated by different micro-mechanical and macro-mechanical techniques. Results highlight the importance of the interplay between solid solution hydrogen and hydrides on the hardness and yield point of the tested materials.