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New methods of nuclear fuel and cladding characterization must be developed and implemented to enhance the safety and reliability of nuclear power plants. One class of such advanced methods is aimed at the characterization of fuel performance by performing minimally intrusive in-core, real time measurements on nuclear fuel on the nanometer scale.

Nuclear power plants depend on instrumentation and control systems for monitoring, control and protection. Traditionally, methods for fuel characterization under irradiation are performed using a “cook and look” method. These methods are very expensive and labor-intensive since they require removal, inspection and return of irradiated samples for each measurement. Such fuel cladding inspection methods investigate oxide layer thickness, wear, dimensional changes, ovality, nuclear fuel growth and nuclear fuel defect identification. These methods are also not suitable for all commercial nuclear power applications as they are not always available to the operator when needed. Additionally, such techniques often provide limited data and may exacerbate the phenomena being investigated.

This thesis investigates a novel, nanostructured sensor based on a photonic crystal design that is implemented in a nuclear reactor environment. The aim of this work is to produce an in-situ radiation-tolerant sensor capable of measuring the deformation of a nuclear material during nuclear reactor operations.

The sensor was fabricated on the surface of nuclear reactor materials (specifically, steel and zirconium based alloys). Charged-particle and mixed-field irradiations were both performed on a newly-developed “pelletron” beamline at Idaho State University's Research and Innovation in Science and Engineering (RISE) complex and at the University of Maryland's 250 kW Training Reactor (MUTR). The sensors were irradiated to 6 different fluences (ranging from 1 to 100 dpa), followed by intensive characterization using focused ion beam (FIB), transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to investigate the physical deformation and microstructural changes between different fluence levels, to provide high-resolution information regarding the material performance. Computer modeling (SRIM/TRIM) was employed to simulate damage to the sensor as well as to provide significant information concerning the penetration depth of the ions into the material.