The UK government is to invest more than £81m into funding a joint laboratory project in London with the US to test the latest laser technology to help secure a quick and secure response to nuclear events.
The East Anglian Integrated Rapid Advanced Safety and Energy Facility will establish a world-first laser system capable of detecting at the minimum possible time any very small initial blast at nuclear power stations or other sites before telling the emergency services.
The facility is expected to launch in 2022 in “one of the most ambitious” science projects of its kind in the world. The partnership between BAE Systems, the UK’s largest defence contractor, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy institution, has £81m in funding from the government.
The researchers are targeting radiation detectors, which allow a faster, more accurate response to any possible blast. It is an essential component of any eventual civil nuclear power station, or other vital nuclear facilities.
The current limit for detection of a rapid initial nuclear explosion is 10 to 30 seconds. However, this is long enough for authorities to order evacuation and other precautions but not long enough to detect a more rapid initial explosion or to detect whether the explosion was bomb-related. The level of the initial “sudden muzzle flash” caused by a nuclear explosion varies from 4-10g of seismic energy.
Any countermeasure that it can find and develop will have a clear advantage, says a UK official, which is why the private sector is “pushing very hard” on it.
The new laser system will be based in two sites: at BAE Systems in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, and Lawrence Livermore in California. More than 100 staff will join BAE to work at the combined facility over its planned eight-year life.
John Swenson, BAE Systems’ director of industrial strategy, said the partnership would mean a more cost-effective response to nuclear-related events such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If British civil nuclear facilities were hit by such an initial blast, there is a risk they would not have enough time to conduct a controlled blast. For civilian power stations such as Britain’s existing eight nuclear power stations, this may mean an immediate evacuation of employees and much more extensive preparations for sheltering and holding back waste from such an event.
Mr Swenson said: “As a result of the rapid protection systems a nuclear reactor could take a rapid nuclear emergency action plan [NAP], for the worst case scenario, effectively fusing into a standard operating procedure and automatically initiate all the plant’s own safety actions.
“At the same time, water barriers are also designed to shield from nuclear fallout and leave all non-essential staff on site.”
The platform will have 12 laser-based safety equipment systems, part of five different special effects simulations of various situations. They will detect seismic patterns similar to the detonation of a nuclear device, air and steam, and gas. This will be done in trials for a year before the pair aim to enter into a six-year fully operational commercial licensing programme.
The £81m is a direct investment by the government through the Innovation and Science Strategy (ISSI), Britain’s flagship industrial strategy, announced in June 2017. It follows a Government-led £1bn programme through the ISSI in the area of robots and artificial intelligence, as well as other engineering projects, and its £200m support for Jaguar Land Rover’s new engine plant in central England.