By Fiona MacDonald
A team of researchers in the US has performed a world-first experiment that will help them work out how uranium dioxide fuel behaves in its molten state – something that generally only occurs at the start of a nuclear meltdown.
This is the first time scientists have managed to get an up-close view of what happens to the fuel as it heats up to more than 3,000 degrees Celsius. Their results have been published in Science, and will help researchers improve safety at nuclear power plants.
“In extreme events like Fukushima and Chernobyl, the uranium dioxide literally melts, and we wanted to study the material to really understand it,” the paper’s lead author Lawrie Skinner from Stony Brook University in New York told Stuart Gary from ABC Science.
“We can now pin down a little bit more accurately what the properties and temperature of the melt will be. Any sensible reactor design should take into account the real structure, physical properties, and behaviour of this melt.”
The reason it’s taken so long for scientists to study this phenomenon is that it’s extremely tough to find a furnace that can withstand heats of 3,000 degrees Celsius – most will begin to melt and react with the uranium at such a high temperature, which interferes with the results. (Well, that, and the fact that generally people want to be as far away from a nuclear reactor as possible.)
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