Viewpoint: NNL delivers a vision for innovation

17 May 2018

Paul Howarth, CEO of the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), gives his account of the SciTec 2018 conference held this week in Liverpool, England

Paul Howarth, CEO National Nuclear Laboratory (Image: NNL)

We're under no illusion that the world faces a huge energy challenge as demand continues to grow. The ability to meet future energy needs will become increasingly important as countries also seek to meet environmental targets. In the UK alone, the government has set targets for all new cars to be electric powered by 2040 and for carbon emissions to be reduced by 80% before 2050. This will put enormous pressure on our electricity requirements - demands that renewable energy sources alone are unlikely to be able to fulfil.

Nuclear has a significant role to play in helping to meet these energy requirements but it has its own challenges that it must address first if it is to protect its future. To build confidence in nuclear, there's a strong belief that project timescales and costs need to be controlled and significantly reduced. There's also a dawning realisation that we will not be able to achieve that by working in isolation.

Taking responsibility for innovation


That's why collaboration and a willingness to disrupt traditional approaches and thinking were the resounding messages at NNL SciTec 2018. There was a sense that the nuclear industry can no longer afford to operate in siloes and keep the challenges we face to ourselves - hidden away from potentially industry changing opportunities to innovate. If we're willing to embrace the spirit of open-mindedness, innovation can come from unlikely sources. This was a sentiment expressed by Professor Andrew Sherry, NNL's chief science and technology officer, and backed up by guest speaker Jonathan Brown, director of Cammell Laird, who shared his vision for industries planning together and factoring innovation into those plans.

One of the key objectives of NNL SciTec 2018 was to demonstrate the results of collaboration in practice, giving tangible examples of projects that are already under way and the benefits they have delivered - as well as highlighting the opportunities for working with a wider range of industries, beyond the traditional scope of the nuclear industry supply chain.

Forming relationships with industries such as oil and gas, aerospace and pharmaceuticals, for example, as well as SMEs and digital start-ups, is seen as being crucial for nuclear's future. By adapting technologies which have proved successful in other industries, there is huge potential for reducing the cost of nuclear.

NNL invited a number of innovative partners along to demonstrate how this is already happening. This included the example of C-Tech Innovation, which demonstrated its electrochemical decontamination technology, ELENDES, at SciTec. Originally developed for the food and drink industry, ELENDES has enormous cost saving potential at nuclear sites as it would allow for hydrochloric acid to be used to remove hotspots from contaminated metals - which in turn would allow decommissioning work to be carried out at a fraction of the cost.

There was also a demonstration from ceramics company Cryoroc that has developed a technique for mixing waste with ceramic paste and cooling it with liquid nitrogen to produce a solid mass. This promises to have a huge impact on nuclear waste - when compared to traditional grout-based techniques - and could halve costs in the process.

A global vision


NNL is itself well positioned to facilitate collaborative partnerships and act as a conduit for change in the industry. As a government-owned business, the organisation reinvests its profits back into innovations that have seen it develop world leading facilities for analysing materials and managing highly active waste and used fuels. Its responsibilities include providing vital technical support and innovation to legacy clean-up at Sellafield and naval propulsion and it has delivered billions of pounds worth of savings to the UK economy.

NNL SciTec 2018 is our platform for promoting the worldwide opportunities for nuclear collaboration and for examining how the UK can take a leading position in the global industry.
The innovation happening around advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), for example, offers great potential for increased capacity and savings by significantly reducing build times. While not a replacement for large units, they can complement projects that are currently under way such as Hinkley Point C, Moorside and Wylfa Newydd.

There is growing traction behind SMRs in this country and, as such, the UK has an opportunity to take the lead globally by developing a collaborative domestic supply chain industry that could provide almost all the components, including the reactors. When combined with the innovations being developed around decommissioning, we’re looking at a bright future for nuclear and its prospects for resolving our future energy crisis.

Disrupt your thinking


To make all this possible we need to collaborate, however, and make the case for that nuclear future. That's why NNL welcomed more than 300 attendees, both from the international nuclear sector and from a broad range of other industries to review how the industry can be secured over the coming decades. The only way to do this is by disrupting our current thinking. With that in focus, delegates were challenged to share their existing problems and consider new ways of overcoming them.

In his closing remarks, Professor Andrew Sherry urged delegates to collaborate, discover and connect - to use NNL SciTec 2018 as a starting point for thinking about new partnerships that will enable them to use technology that has already been developed and proven in other industries. Doing this is the only way to protect our industry's future and our future energy needs.

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