I once had a physics teacher who in a previous job had been stripping asbestos from the inside of a nuclear reactor. Of all occupations I have ever heard about this is certainly the most hazardous and would likely be fatal, sooner or later, if he was not wearing proper protection at the time. The reason asbestos was originally used was because of its insulation and incredible flame resistance. Nuclear reactors now need to be safer then ever and materials that can resist the extremely corrosive and high temperature environments need to be improved. In the future nuclear reactors may not get any bigger but they will certainly be more efficient and operating at higher temperatures. And all of this is not even considering high energy neutron radiation that will turn materials into dust given enough time.
An idea that has recently been developed is that of oxide ceramics. Generally to survive radiation damage the smaller the better, and ceramics despite being considered brittle are quite strong under compression and resist corrosion effectively. So an experiment involving putting nano crystals and thin films of aluminium oxide (Al2O3) into the conditions that they would experience in a reactor has been performed. It was found that the structure of Al2O3, is quite similar to that of a full metal and so gains some of its more favourable mechanical properties such as hardness and a high Young’s modulus. the radiation was found to change the format of the material from amorphous to crystalline over time leading to varying effects on properties. The conclusion is that these ceramics can definitely be used in nuclear engineering with the most probable use being that of a protective layer over radiation sensitive components. This kind of development pushes the limiting factors on our production of nuclear energy and heads towards a more sustainable future.