Case study

Direct neutron usage

Investigating real-world applications for neutrons and charged particles in new technology areas.

The challenge

UKAEA tasked Frazer-­Nash Consultancy with investigating how neutrons and charged particles from a commercial fusion reactor could be directly utilised without any intermediary steps.

This offers the ability to increase the reactor’s value proposition compared to the conventional approach of electricity generation through thermal-to-electric methods. 

This project assessed the feasibility of four technology areas:

  • Direct Electricity Conversion (DEC) – using the energy in charged particles to direct generate an electrical current which can be exported.
  • Transmutation of nuclear waste – using neutrons to convert fission spent nuclear fuel into shorter-lived waste products, whilst generating additional heat.
  • Medical and industrial isotope production – using neutrons to convert target materials into useful isotopes for therapeutic and diagnostic medicines and industrial uses.
  • Irradiation of materials for testing, material performance improvement or analysis – using neutrons to create changes or damage in materials for research or for commercial gain e.g. silicon doping.

These technologies have not previously been combined with an operational fusion reactor and therefore had a relatively low Technology Readiness Level (TRL). The strategic challenges, such as balancing environmental impacts with technical performance needed careful assessment to provide a reliable understanding of the real-world potential offered by the technologies.


Our approach

Frazer-­Nash Consultancy have a strong history of conducting optioneering and feasibility studies for low-TRL technologies, across a wide range of industries, including fusion,

This study presented a first look at the technologies to aid decision making and strategy planning on what alternative technologies could be pursued for the commercial application of a fusion device.

The assessment was split into the following areas:

  • Technical feasibility – covering how the technology can integrate with the fusion device, the subsystems required to utilise the technology and its TRL and associated risks.
  • Commercial feasibility – covering a high-level approximation of the implementation costs (capital and operation expenditure) and the potential revenue, giving an assessment of financial viability.
  • Practical and legal considerations – covering the required footprint/siting requirements, key environmental impact concerns and any intellectual property.

In addition to the above points, the different technologies introduce their own specific considerations which affect feasibility of deployment. For example, the political and social aspects of nuclear waste transmutation will play a large part of whether the technology could be utilised.


The outcome

The outcome from the optioneering exercises and feasibility assessments was that technologies with lower TRLs offer the greatest overall potential benefit, necessitating greater investment in any R&D. For example, utilising fusion neutrons for nuclear waste transmutation would offer commercial viability alongside substantial societal benefits for future generations, but would require a multi-billion pound R&D investment. DEC has substantial technical challenges to overcome to make it possible to practically implement, for example, the large footprint and increased risk of environmental tritium release. However, if DEC was implemented, it could increase the net electricity exported and improve STEP efficiency, hence allowing a return on investment within a reactor lifetime.

Isotope production and materials irradiation are relatively inexpensive to implement and offer low relative technical complexities. Isotope production offers a secure UK supply of medical isotopes and offers a reduced environmental impact compared to the current isotope production methods. Materials irradiation (irradiation programmes, neutron activation analysis, and neutron transmutation doping) has the potential to add value as a reliable and flexible additional income source for relatively low cost.

For each of these technologies, suitable design configurations were determined to enable each application to improve the tritium self-sufficiency. For technologies where tritium self-sufficiency was not possible, costings and practicalities of externally generated tritium was incorporated.

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