Laser-driven multi-modal probe beams for nuclear waste inspection

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Mathematics and Physics


This proposal aims to develop a revolutionary new tool for the stand-off inspection of nuclear waste packages using laser-driven x-rays and neutron beam pulses. This will be a collaborative project between the University of Bristol's Interface Analysis Centre (IAC), Sellafield Limited, Queen's University Belfast (QUB) and the STFC Central Laser Facility (CLF). By firing an extremely high-energy laser for a very short duration, an intense spot of x-ray radiation is generated and projected towards detector plates. In a similar manner to medical x-rays, any object placed between the bright source of x-rays and either photographic film or digital image plates, is captured in detail. However, because a very high energy is used, imaging of packages containing uranium waste, one of the densest materials on Earth, is possible.

Since 1952, Sellafield has been responsible for safe storage and reprocessing of all the UK's nuclear waste. Decades of research and development have resulted in more manageable forms of nuclear waste. However, a number of problems remain, particularly with the ageing 'legacy' nuclear waste that has been stockpiled since the 1960s. Before long term storage in a geological disposal facility is considered, the composition and degradation state of the waste material and containment vessels needs to be established. Due to the radioactivity and dangerous corrosion products formed during storage, a destructive investigation of the waste containers is considered far too hazardous to be performed. Therefore, a non-destructive, stand-off evaluation of the containers is proposed.

For a visual inspection of the internals of a nuclear waste package, high-energy x-rays are used to create an image of the sample. Typical means of producing x-rays do not achieve either the resolution required or the energy to penetrate through the large, dense waste containers. Therefore, it has been proposed that the petawatt Vulcan laser at the CLF is utilised to generate the necessary high-energy x-rays required for this analysis.

In addition, the Vulcan laser facility is capable of producing a beam of neutrons in parallel with the high-energy x-rays. By probing the waste containers with a neutron beam any fissile material contained inside will undergo a small amount of fission and emit secondary neutrons. Depending on the fissile material that reacts, the emitted neutrons will generate a unique signature which can be used to identify the particular isotope present in the sample. Analysis of this data holds the potential for isotopic quantification, thus identifying the exact quantity of highly radioactive uranium-235 compared to the isotopically different, and far less radioactive, uranium-238.

Whilst the initial aims of this proposal are for characterisation of samples via a single-shot approach, the end goal is the development of a system capable of firing up to ten times a second by construction of a small footprint, high-energy DiPOLE laser with the corresponding sensors capable of rapid data acquisition. In anticipation of such a system, one component of this project aims at improving existing detector technology with a focus on rapid image capture and neutron detection.

The final section of the project is the production of a business case to pursue the eventual development of a fast firing analysis system to form the basis of a nuclear waste package scanning facility. Much like CT scanning, by rotating the waste container during multiple image acquisition a 3D profile of the contents can be constructed. This technique would allow us to probe deep inside the waste containers and assess their contents in detail without any destructive investigation or disturbance to the potentially toxic, pyrophoric, and radioactive contents. We consider that this technology would have excellent global export potential to other nations producing nuclear waste.


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Alejo A (2016) Numerical study of neutron beam divergence in a beam-fusion scenario employing laser driven ions in Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A: Accelerators, Spectrometers, Detectors and Associated Equipment

Description STFC/DSTL Experimental support funds
Amount £24,000 (GBP)
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2017 
End 09/2017
Description CLF 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution my contribution towards the collaboration includes sharing ideas and expertise, inviting to participate in experiments and sharing data.
Collaborator Contribution Collaboration with the plasma physics group of Central laser facility, STFC provided significant support from both experimental and theoretical point of view. Where Prof. Peter Norreys, Prof. Dave Neely, Dr. Rob Clarke and Dr. C. Brenner collaborated in several experiments, Dr. Alex Robinson carried out simulations for the analysis of the data obtained in the experiments.
Impact 1- Physical Review Letters, 109, 185006 (2012) 2- Plasma Phys. Control. Fusion 55 124030 (2013) 3- Review of Scientific Instruments, 85, 033304 (2014) 4- Review of Scientific Instruments, 85, 093303 (2014) 5- Journal of X-Ray science and Technology, 23, 791 (2015) 6- Review of Scientific Instruments, 86, 123302 (2015) 7- Plasma Phys. Control. Fusion 58 014039 (2015)
Start Year 2012
Description University of Bristol 
Organisation University of Bristol
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution sharing expertise, joint proposal
Collaborator Contribution sharing expertise, joint proposal
Impact a few papers have been published and more yet to come. The outcomes can be found under the respective sections.
Start Year 2016
Description ERASMUS+ Powerlaps Intensive Training programme 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact ERASMUS+ Powerlaps Intensive Training programme 2018 was help at QUB to educate recently joined postgraduate research students about high intensity laser plasma interaction. I delivered a 3 hours lecture seminar on laser driven ion acceleration and applications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Seminar at ELI Beamlines, Prague 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Dissemination of scientific results, raised awareness of the research activities at QUB on laser driven ions and neutrons
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017