Into the deep: Monash at forefront of Australian nuclear materials research

A new study that will help nuclear-propelled submarines to remain underwater – and undetected - for much longer, has put Monash researchers in the global spotlight.

The paper, published in prestigious journal Nature Communications, features lead author Professor Michael Preuss, a world expert in nuclear materials research who joined Monash University’s Faculty of Engineering in 2020.

It identified a critical corrosion mechanism of nuclear fuel cladding material that is affected by how the material is processed. In nuclear submarines, the ultra-thin material, zirconium alloy, provides a barrier between the nuclear fuel and the water surrounding it.

Until now, it’s been difficult to accurately predict the lifespan of the cladding, wasting time, resources and potentially, millions of dollars.

“Nuclear submarines are expected to run for 25 years without refuelling, which contributes to them being highly undetectable,” Professor Preuss said.

“In order to achieve this it is important to ensure that the life of the material encapsulating the nuclear fuel can be predicted.”

The research developments come as discussions heat up over AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US announced last September. Australia is expected to announce which type of nuclear submarines it will acquire in March.

It will be the first time Australia has operated nuclear submarines, having used diesel-driven submarines – which unlike their more modern counterparts, require regular refuelling – until now.

The submarines would keep Australian waters open and safe, Professor Preuss said.

“The pandemic has demonstrated how vulnerable Australia is because the supply chain can be very easily interrupted. The submarines would increase the chances that the supply chain will not be interrupted because they’re a deterrent.”

Professor Preuss said the study findings are a timely reminder that Australia must do all it can to begin growing the skills needed to maintain, and eventually build, nuclear submarines.

“Australia is facing an unprecedented challenge in developing a skill base in nuclear within 15 years in which Australian universities will have to play a key role,” he said.

“And it won't just be in one or two universities because the challenge is massive.”

To date, he said there was very little research in Australia related to nuclear engineering, and more specifically, nuclear materials.

Monash plans to lead the charge. Its latest research was mostly funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Research Council, with Rolls-Royce and Westinghouse also closely involved.

Rolls-Royce, which powers the UK’s nuclear submarines, has also committed to funding two PhD students at Monash, in the area of nuclear materials.

Materials experts within Defence Science and Technology have also commissioned Monash to develop a report on the knowledge and skill base required in the field of nuclear materials.

Professor Preuss said Australia needs a strategy to develop its expertise. As part of the report, Monash will consult academics from various Australian universities, along with research organisations and industry in the UK and the US.

He said corrosion is a huge financial burden globally, costing an estimated $US2.5 trillion each year.