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Jamie Coble

Sensors Could Improve Nuclear Safety

In 2011 a massive tsunami struck Japan, resulting in nearly 16,000 confirmed deaths. On the heels of this natural disaster, the world bore witness to a nuclear disaster that included three nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Since that time there has been an increased focus on accident-tolerant nuclear fuels. Jamie Coble, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and Southern Company Faculty Fellow, hopes to contribute critical data to the search for better fuels.

“One of the key problems we have, especially as we try to develop accident-tolerant fuels and new fuel forms, is knowing what’s actually happening to the fuel while it’s in the reactor,” said Coble. 

Currently, in order to study what’s happening to a particular fuel, it is put in a test reactor, bombarded with radiation, and removed to measure any changes—a method that provides limited data.  

“What we’d really rather do is measure what’s happening while the fuel is in the reactor, but that’s very challenging to do for a number of reasons,” said Coble. “It’s a high-radiation, high-temperature environment. It’s also very tight. There’s not a lot of space to put in big bulky sensors.”

Her JDRD work attempts to address these difficulties by developing a sensor capable of surviving such extreme conditions while being small enough to fit inside the reactor. Coble’s sensor, once constructed, will fit around the fuel rod and measure any dimensional changes that occur as a result of irradiation. 

“Our hope is that we can identify a sensor material that is radiation resistant and heat tolerant so that our sensor won’t change dimensions while it’s in the reactor,” said Coble. 

Her team is working with simulations to test a variety of existing materials. Once potential materials have been identified, Coble plans to build the sensor and conduct testing without radiation.

“Our goal for the first year is to see if we can actually measure a change in a metal tube,” she said. “We want to be able to say that our simulations match what we’d expect to see in the real world.”