Living In A Material World

A look inside the Westinghouse Materials Center of Excellence.  

When the iconic pop singer Madonna had her 1980s hit “Material Girl” she sang, “we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.” At the Westinghouse Materials Center of Excellence, located in Churchill, Pennsylvania, USA, there are more than 70 employees living in the material world. Here, though, instead of obsessing over diamond rings and Lamborghinis, this crew is interested in reactor vessel internals and other irradiated nuclear components.

The facility received an $8 million USD renovation two years ago, but the vast array of specialized equipment and controls that the building houses are valued at far more than that. That’s much more impressive than rings and sports cars, right?

The facility has the rarity factor going for it as well—there are only three labs in the U.S. that perform testing and analysis like this commercially. “We’re all a little bit different, but this is the only one that actually caters to the reactor vessel materials, said Greg Kustra, a technician who has worked at the facility for more than 40 years.

At the heart of the facility is the Westinghouse Gamma Irradiation Hot Cell, which provides real-time, in situ evaluation of gamma-ray irradiation effects in materials, components and systems. In addition, the lab has electronic neutron generator systems to perform prompt gamma and neutron analyses of samples to determine the composition and characteristics of a wide range of product and materials. 

There are also low-level hot cells for material testing. Having both high- and low-level cells allows Westinghouse customers to do a variety of tests in a short amount of time. “We’re unique in that we can reconfigure a lot easier than other places can,” Kustra said. “We can go into the low-level cell, clean things up and get it ready for something else within a few days. It’s really something that we feel is a great asset for our customers.”

When a nuclear power plant is operating, materials in the reactor vessel are bombarded with neutrons which make metals and other materials more brittle over time. It’s important to inspect these materials to ensure that they are properly withstanding this harsh environment. With the lab’s Surveillance Capsule Program, the facility can safely bring in irradiated materials into the lab from a commercial nuclear power plant, and analyze it in one of the various hot cells over time.

The facility also has a hot-scanning electron microscope (SEM) elevator in the high-level hot cell. This takes the material from the high level cell below and brings it up to the area where the SEM is located. “Lots of places have scanning electron microscopes, but not many people have one that allows you to put highly radioactive materials in them and take a look”, Kustra said. “You can tell whether the material has a stress fracture, corrosion, or fatigue. It’s a very unique feature of the facility.”

The facility also has a radio chemistry lab with a wide range of analytical equipment. Moving throughout the expansive facility, you’ll see more SEMs, as well as Mechanical testing, microstructural characterization, and analytical chemistry laboratories.

If Madonna were to tour the facility, even she would be impressed.

Want to learn more about the Westinghouse Materials Center of Excellence? Click here to read more.