Safely probing the chemistry of Chernobyl nuclear fuel using micro-focus X-ray analysis†
Detailed chemical analysis of the solidified molten fuel still residing in the stricken Chernobyl reactor unit 4 are inferred using multi-modal micro-focus X-ray analysis of a low-radioactivity proxy. A fascinating mixture of molten UO2, nuclear fuel cladding, concrete, stainless steel and other nuclear reactor components, these materials behaved like lava, solidifying to form a complex, highly radioactive glass-ceramic. Using element-specific chemical probes (micro-X-ray fluorescence and X-ray absorption spectroscopy), coupled with micro-diffraction analysis, the crystalline phase assemblage of simulants of these heterogeneous materials was established, which included “chernobylite” and a range of compositions in the (U1−xZrx)O2 solid solution. Novel insight to nuclear accident fuel chemistry was obtained by establishing the oxidation state and local coordination of uranium not only in these crystalline phases, but uniquely in the amorphous fraction of the material, which varied depending on the history of the nuclear lava as it flowed through the reactor. This study demonstrates that micro-focus X-ray analysis of very small fractions of material can yield rich chemical information, which can be applied to nuclear-melt down materials to aid decommissioning and nuclear fuel management at nuclear accident sites.