NPL and CERN partner to work on nuclear tech

2nd May 2024
Caitlin Gittins

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the European Laboratory for Particle Physics - CERN, to participate in its neutron time-of-flight facility (n_TOF) situated in Geneva, Switzerland.


The n_TOF facility is globally renowned for neutron measurements, utilising high-intensity neutron beams covering a broad energy spectrum to precisely analyse neutron-related phenomena, including interactions with atomic nuclei. This collaboration involves over 50 research institutions worldwide engaged in research initiatives spanning from fundamental science to applied nuclear physics.

At the CERN facility, NPL will conduct precise cross-section measurements of neutron-induced nuclear reactions pertinent to the advancement of novel nuclear technologies, such as advanced nuclear reactors (Gen-IV) and fuel cycles. NPL's specific focus lies in investigating reactions yielding hydrogen, tritium, and helium across various materials. This data serves as a foundation for the development of tritium breeding blankets, plasma-facing armour components, and assessing the longevity of reactor components against radiation-induced deterioration, all of which are crucial for the commercialisation of fusion energy.

Nuclear fusion is recognised as a sustainable long-term energy source. The UK government has recently outlined plans to quadruple the nation's nuclear generation by 2050, with additional investments of £650 million allocated to augment existing fusion programmes.

A substantial portion of the investment in nuclear power will be channelled through the private sector and universities, aiming to invigorate intensive research and development necessary to overcome specific technical hurdles associated with harnessing electricity from nuclear fusion. These challenges encompass material-related issues stemming from the intense neutron flux involved and establishing conditions for ignition, ensuring that nuclear fusion emerges as a safe, reliable, and sustainable energy source.

In collaboration with fellow members of the n_TOF consortium, the NPL team aspires to pave the way for a dedicated experimental agenda at n_TOF, fostering enhanced simulation capabilities and operational insights into next-generation fission and fusion reactors. NPL will collaborate closely with various UK institutions, including the University of Manchester, University of Surrey, University of Birmingham, Lancaster University, University of York, and UKAEA.

Central to NPL's aspirations is the support extended by the PostGraduate Institute (PGI) at NPL, which has facilitated the recruitment of two PhD students, enabling NPL to assume a leading role in the collaboration.

The proposed collaboration is poised to yield long-term technological and economic dividends, particularly in the realm of advancing 'next-generation' nuclear fusion systems for energy generation. Furthermore, the programme will bolster NPL's longstanding neutron research initiative, leveraging the recently funded upgrade to its existing on-site neutron facility for pivotal measurements and traceability chains, while also facilitating the broader dissemination of NPL-based expertise in nuclear metrology and radiochemistry.

Cyrus Larijani, Strategic Business Development Manager, said: “I am very pleased that NPL will join the n_TOF collaboration. This expands the NPL external network and gives our scientists a new opportunity to lead solutions to the world’s challenges. It is also an effective return of investments that UK has made over the years at CERN.”

Giuseppe Lorusso, NPL Senior Scientist, said: “This is a great opportunity to participate in frontline nuclear physics research and provide answers to long lasting open questions. Being a member of the n_TOF scientific board gives me an important platform to influence the direction in which international research is undertaken.”

“The new formal agreement between CERN and NPL regarding the n_TOF collaboration should be a gamechanger in terms of the UK’s neutron research capabilities and impact. In particular, the proposed future international research programmes of relevance to next generation nuclear fission and fusion research are the cutting edge of this work internationally," concluded Prof. Paddy Regan NPL Fellow in Nuclear and Radiation Science and Metrology.

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