A corrosion scientist newly appointed to Western will add research heft and innovation in the international quest to safeguard used nuclear fuel.
Samantha Gateman, an award-winning electrochemist, is the new chair in radiation-induced chemistry at Western. Gateman’s research will be funded through a new $1.1-million grant from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).
Gateman’s arrival will bolster the university’s already-strong team of chemistry, physics and engineering researchers who are acknowledged leaders in testing nuclear-waste storage solutions. Currently at Sorbonne Université in France, Gateman will begin her work at Western in January 2022.
Gateman specializes in predicting and measuring electrochemical processes that cause corrosion at very small length scales, and she works to prevent these types of degradation.
That’s crucial knowledge to mine as the world grapples with managing its stockpiles of used nuclear fuel; and how to store them for thousands of years with multiple fail-safes that together defy corrosion, seepage or radiation leaks.
Detecting and preventing corrosion
Gateman’s work is unique. She has fabricated tiny probes that can gauge miniaturized electrochemical reactions – essentially, she manufactures and measures corrosion – along metal surfaces. She then studies how the metals’ structure at a micro- and nano-scale affect the initiation of corrosion in order to predict where, when and how corrosion will occur.
“Metals may look uniform when you look at them with your naked eye, but when you place that metal under a microscope, you’ll see that they’re quite heterogeneous and this can dictate the way that the material will corrode,” Gateman explained.
She has applied her innovation to detecting and preventing corrosion in thermal spray coatings on large turbines in hydroelectric generators in Quebec.
By applying a similar approach to nuclear waste research, she hopes to be able to identify how impurities in the storage canisters’ cold-spray copper coating could affect their corrosion, and how to minimize these impurities by changing coating-fabrication parameters.
Gateman’s work will fill a gap in understanding the lifespan of these coatings and in mitigating the potential degradation that might take place.
The intended result is long-lasting storage of nuclear waste, and safety for people and the planet.
“I’m passionate about the environment …and really happy to be working on this project to ensure the safety of the future generations of Canadians and make sure that we have enough energy for everyone for years to come,” Gateman said.
“The reason I’m drawn to corrosion science is because it’s directly applicable and relevant, and this keeps my goals very focused,” Gateman said.
Listen: Samantha Gateman, on science that makes a difference
The NWMO is responsible for implementing Canada’s plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel.
The organization’s plan for Canada’s three million used fuel bundles includes containing and isolating them in copper-coated steel containers and then placing the containers in dense bentonite clay within a deep geological repository.
But the NWMO first needs rigorous testing of every element of its nuclear storage strategy.
In that research, Western is the NWMO’s longest-running university partner, said Laurie Swami, president and CEO of the NWMO. The organization has invested millions into Western’s anti-corrosion research and other projects in chemistry, engineering, physics and earth sciences over the past two decades.
“It’s important to have a robust understanding of the underground conditions, including corrosion conditions, that would exist in a deep geological repository,” Swami said. “That requires really qualified researchers as well as strong programs … Western is one of the ones we’ve worked with the most.”
Listen: CEO Laurie Swami, on the NWMO’s longstanding partnership with Western researchers
Western president Alan Shepard welcomed the NWMO’s “continued confidence in our research to find solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.”
“Western has a great tradition of foundational and practical research, innovative problem-solving that really leads the world,” said Shepard. “Every nuclear-energy-producing country grapples with the critical issue of nuclear waste storage. Scientists like David Shoesmith, Clara Wren, Jamie Noël and others at Western – now including Samantha Gateman – are helping find a path that will ultimately benefit not just Canada but the global community for centuries.”
Gateman said she looks forward to working with the Western teams, especially with chemistry professor Clara Wren. “She’s the world expert in radiation-induced corrosion so she’s the perfect person to learn from about this aspect of the research.”
Swami noted this chair builds on a tradition of generational breadth and depth of research in the field.
“In the nuclear sector, broadly, we are looking at how we can maintain our programs through succession planning … so that there’s the opportunity for really valuable knowledge transfer between the people that are doing the work today, and the new people that need to come in and fulfill those roles in the future.”
“We’re really pleased that Western has been able to hire such a qualified candidate to come into the program and work with the team that professor Wren has established, and develop their own reputation as well,” Swami said of Gateman’s appointment.
This new chair builds on the effective, longstanding relationship between Western and the NWMO, said Faculty of Science dean Matt Davison.
“Like us, the NWMO recognizes how important it is to have continuity in ongoing research, while at the same time bringing along successive generations of innovators,” he said.
“Samantha is well-respected and is already showing great leadership, research output and creativity. Her skillset builds on strengths we already have in corrosion science and adds new dimensions that bring a lot of value to the problem.”
Originally from Southern Ontario, Gateman earned her BSc and then a PhD in electrochemistry from McGill University in Montreal, where she was awarded the D.W. Ambridge prize, a highly competitive award for doctoral graduates in physical sciences and engineering.
She has since been pursuing postdoctoral research at Sorbonne.
Click through the five slides, above, to progress through the NWMO’s plans for safe storage of used nuclear fuel. Illustrations by Rob Potter, Western Communications
Seeking permanent solutions
Western researchers’ work is a critical part of the complex puzzle of dealing with used nuclear fuel.
About 60 per cent of this province’s electricity is derived from nuclear energy produced at three Ontario power plants.
When used fuel bundles are removed from reactors, they continue to emit radiation and are cooled for 10 years in deep pools before being sealed in thick-walled, 73-tonne containers.
More than three million log-sized fuel bundles – their number increasing by about 90,000 per year – are stored this way.
But it’s a temporary solution, and Canada has long grappled with the logistics of permanent, safe storage.
As part of a process more than two decades in the making, the NWMO is proposing a repository be built 500 metres deep into impermeable crystalline rock in Ignace, Ontario, or into sedimentary rock in South Bruce, also in Ontario.
The planned multiple-barrier system would include placing the bundles in steel containers, each about the size of a small kayak, that would be coated with electroplated copper about three millimetres thick.
Each container and each chamber of the repository would then be encased in bentonite clay to provide an additional barrier to waterflow.
There, the bundles would rest as their radioactivity drops to the level of their surroundings over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.
The NWMO aims to select a site, based on geological suitability and host-community willingness, by the end of 2023.
For more on Western’s corrosion research, click here.