PhD Environment

Inside the Dalton Cumbrian Facility

Tom UnsworthThis post is by Thomas Unsworth. Thomas is currently a PhD student in the School of Chemistry.


Our facility sits on the West Coast of Cumbria, on the edge of the lake district. The Dalton Cumbrian Facility (DCF) [1] is a joint venture between the University of Manchester and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Down the road is the UK’s largest decommissioning, reprocessing and waste management site, Sellafield. This is no coincidence, as most of the research being carried out at the DCF at least in some way contributes to the operations on site.

From 2003 [2] to 2008 [3], the UK has changed its policy on nuclear energy generation; from being an unattractive option, nuclear is expected to continue to be part of the UK’s low-carbon energy mix. Today, there are important new ventures planned, including the construction of a geological disposal facility (GDF) for radioactive waste [4], and the building of new reactors. There are not just technological, but social and political issues holding back many of these projects. Past nuclear incidents, in particular the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, mean more scrutiny and research is required to ensure all parts of the nuclear fuel cycle are efficient and safe.



Much of the research being carried out by students and postdocs at the DCF, including mine, makes extensive use of gamma rays from a Cobalt-60 irradiator. Experiments measure the effects of gamma radiation on chemical yield of solutions and material degradation. Irradiator time is highly sought after. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.27 years and the manufacture of Cobalt-60 is an expensive and time consuming process, which requires bombarding natural Cobalt-59 with neutrons [5]. This is generally carried out at nuclear test reactors outside of the UK. For this reason, we try to make the most of our Cobalt-60 source by ensuring the irradiator is occupied 24/7.

The labs here are small, which is a good and a bad thing. Space is important and well utilised. We have just enough equipment to analyse samples post irradiation, although a few trips to Manchester are still necessary. Contrary to the stereotypical image of a chemistry lab full of bubbling, coloured test tubes, most of the samples analysed here are colourless and odourless. Apart from the wind, rain, and distance required to find a burrito, working at the DCF is just like working in any other lab.







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