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Determination of the local configuration of interacting defects in a crystalline, periodic solid is problematic because defects typically do not have a long-range periodicity. Uranium dioxide, the primary fuel for fission reactors, exists in hyperstoichiometric form, UO2+x. Those excess oxygen atoms occur as interstitial defects, and these defects are not random but rather partially ordered. The widely-accepted model to date, the Willis cluster based on neutron diffraction, cannot be reconciled with the first-principles molecular dynamics simulations present here. We demonstrate that the Willis cluster is a fair representation of the numerical ratio of different interstitial O atoms; however, the model does not represent the actual local configuration. The simulations show that the average structure of UO 2+x involves a combination of defect structures including split di-interstitial, di-interstitial, mono-interstitial, and the Willis cluster, and the latter is a transition state that provides for the fast diffusion of the defect cluster. The results provide new insights in differentiating the average structure from the local configuration of defects in a solid and the transport properties of UO2+x.

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Scientific Reports