Sandia National Laboratories is using its Ion Beam Laboratory (IBL) to study how to rapidly evaluate the tougher advanced materials needed to build the next generation of nuclear reactors and extend the lives of current reactors.

Reactor operators need advanced cladding materials - the alloys that create the outer layer of nuclear fuel rods to keep them separate from the cooling fluid. Better alloys will be less likely to deteriorate from exposure to everything from coolant fluids to radiation damage.

According to Sandia scientists, operating a reactor causes progressive microstructural changes in the alloys used in cladding, and that can hurt the materials’ integrity. However, present-day methods of evaluating materials can take decades.

The Albuquerque, N.M.-based laboratory, which replaced an earlier facility dating from the 1970s, has been in operation for about a year. It is performing in situ ion irradiation experiments that could cut years off the testing profile, Sandia says. The ion beams use various refractory elements to simulate different types of damage and thus predict the lifetimes of advanced reactor claddings. Some of the research was highlighted in a presentation by materials scientist Khalid Hattar in December at the Materials Research Society conference in Boston in a paper co-authored by Tom Buchheit, Shreyas Rajasekhara and B.G. Clark.

Better understanding of cladding materials could help improve reactor efficiency. To learn more about the research, visit