UK needs national lab to coordinate nuclear R&D

22 February 2017

The UK's National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) cannot fulfil the role its name describes while it relies on commercial work for part of its funding. That was the consensus of three expert witnesses to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's inquiry into priorities for nuclear research and technologies.

NNL has been providing independent advice to the UK government and working with other national laboratories around the world since 2008. It has also been delivering research and technology to support the nuclear fuel cycle. Its major customers including the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), Sellafield, Springfields, the Ministry of Defence, EDF Energy and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

The witnesses - Michael Bluck, director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London; Mike Tynan, CEO of the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield; and Grace Burke, director of the Materials Performance Centre at Manchester University - told the parliamentary committee yesterday that NNL's role needs urgent attention.

Bluck said the contract work NNL does is principally for Sellafield Ltd. "If it is doing a good job in waste and decommissioning then maybe there's no particular reason to interfere because it may be a good system, but if this releases a paltry amount of cash based on that profit which it is only recently allowed to recirculate into research, then plainly it's not fit for purpose as a national nuclear laboratory," he said.

Tynan added that Sellafield Ltd is funded by the NDA, which is funded by government. "While NNL competes for work, there is certain work that only it can do. That adds some complexity to the situation [and] you could argue government is already funding a substantial part of it anyway," he said. But the committee "mustn't forget" the UKAEA and the "fantastic work" it does.

Based at the University of Sheffield with support from the University of Manchester, the Nuclear AMRC Tynan heads combines industry expertise and university innovation to help manufacturers improve capabilities and performance. It is also part of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult.

Catapult centres were established by Innovate UK (previously the Technology Strategy Board) to promote R&D through business-led collaboration between scientists, engineers and market opportunities. HVM Catapult is one of these and comprises seven Technology and Innovation centres working with companies of all sizes to bridge the gap in - and accelerate the activity between - technology concept and commercialisation.

Asked whether NNL should have the status of a Catapult centre, Tynan said that was an "interesting concept" and "worth thinking about".

Nuclear AMRC's experience of four years working with NNL has been "very positive", he said.

"We find them supportive, collaborative and professional. They have unique experience in the United Kingdom and probably something like thousands of man years of experience in civil nuclear and the challenges that it faces. The difficulty for NNL is that the role as a national lab is unclear. It has a commercial remit and that has the potential to reduce its independence. It also [has] programs that are commercially driven and not necessarily on research priorities, so its resource can be diverted from possibly national imperatives by having to focus on commercial business.

"However, neither is NNL a university, so it's not purely academic. And so its current mission of having to sit in this quasi-commercial position and to some extent be an independent advisor to government, yet fund itself through commercial work and work with commercial clients, is a difficult role.

"There are some real challenges that NNL is specifically equipped to deal with and that's in waste management and decommissioning for the long-term program, but we shouldn't forget that they have the ability to do front-end work on new technology and fuel manufacturing. I have a positive view of NNL, but if it is to be the national nuclear lab, then its remit needs to be significantly clarified."

Burke said, "ideally", NNL should be solely government funded and "not diverted with commercial work". She said: "As it is, it's incredibly difficult to have NNL participants in research programs in which I know specific staff are uniquely qualified in the UK and in the world. It is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to have them formally involved with programs. So, if it is a national nuclear laboratory, and you intend to get the best and really world class research and development out of it, then in an ideal world it would be solely [state] funded and not have to rely on soliciting commercial contracts."

Where responsibility lies

Through its inquiry, the committee is exploring issues such as where responsibility lies for ensuring the UK has a coherent and consistent long-term policy for civil nuclear activities, as well as how the nuclear sector might benefit from a 'sector deal' as discussed in the government's Industrial Strategy Green Paper.

Tynan referred to the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC), which was established in 2013 as a partnership between the government and industry to provide high-level strategic direction to the country's nuclear sector.

The principal responsibility for a UK nuclear program "has to sit with government" and thus with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Tynan said. "There has to be a mechanism for delivering that responsibility and I think the formation of a new Nuclear Industry Council is a really positive step. That council should be the instrument for taking the strategy for civil nuclear in the UK forward."

Burke, formerly a consultant engineer at the Bettis Laboratory in the USA and an advisory engineer at Westinghouse Electric Corp, described the coordinating role of the Office of Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy (DOE). This is the "focal point for research" into nuclear energy in the USA, she said. In the UK, most of such funding comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, she added.

"There has been a great benefit by having the research councils link with the US system. This has been done in terms of the DOE's Nuclear Energy University Program. We have had several programs where we partner with colleagues in the US, the proposals are written and evaluated in the US under DOE guidelines, and the UK research council sponsors or funds the UK participants," Burke said.

"So, a team effort is developed. That's been incredibly effective, but has been very small scale generally. There are possibly three or four programs that are funded that way. I think that something along these lines could be expanded and it would maximise the benefit to the UK by partnering and basically doubling the funding that's going into research efforts. It's also good for international collaborations and getting excellent people, and the training as well."

Role of NIC

The committee asked the witnesses about the "expanded remit" of NIC compared to the previous role of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (Nirab), the term of which ran from January 2014 to December 2016.

Tynan said NIC "encompasses the entire scope" of a program for nuclear in the UK and "it's important to ensure that that we link civil nuclear with defence".

Nirab's principal role was limited to identifying R&D priorities. It had no oversight of those programs, nor was it responsible for their delivery, he said.

Bluck said universities are an "obvious candidate" to provide a focus on nuclear research, but coordination between them is "based upon the small number of modest projects that we have fought for together".

He told the committee: "We are a friendly club, but that's probably picking up fairly piecemeal activities, frankly, and not really engaging, or able to engage, in a large program. Any large program of new build or industrial activity would have to be supported by an appropriate educational strategy."

Although nuclear policy falls under BEIS, he said, "we are stretching out into different departments, such as the Department for Education and so on". There is a need, he added, for a coordinating entity with executive authority, "something tasked with meeting a strategy it can be measured against, rather than the piecemeal activities we currently have".

Burke added the USA's Office of Nuclear Energy "handles all of that" and interacts with the nuclear arm of the Electric Power Research Institute.

Coordinating funding

Tynan said there are "two pieces to the problem" in terms of coordination. One is coordination of funding, which he said was "an issue for nuclear R&D".

"There are different sources of funding. We now see a growth in potential regional funding, so Local Enterprise Partnerships can fund locally activities that they believe can create value. There is central funding that tends to come from BEIS and that could be on a business program or on innovation funding and the sources of those forms of funding are different, and then there's commercial income on collaborative work in R&D. There's an issue of, do we understand exactly where the funding streams are and are they addressing the right things."

A national nuclear laboratory should coordinate R&D activity, he said. "I'm not saying the National Nuclear Laboratory, I'm saying a national lab."

"We have a couple of organisations that fit the bill - NNL and the UKAEA - but there are a lot of other organisations that have an interest in nuclear R&D in the UK. It should be brought together under one executive authority and it should be responsible to BEIS, and BEIS's principal mechanism for its strategy would be the Nuclear Industry Council."

The government has "placed nuclear R&D back on its agenda", Tynan said, "probably after something like a 20-year absence". This process "started really in earnest" with the Beddington Report - a document the committee produced in November 2011 into UK nuclear R&D capabilities.

That focus should not be allowed to "slip back off the agenda", he said.

Tynan also referred to UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) - a government department working with businesses based in the UK to assist their success in international markets, and with overseas investors looking to the UK.

UKTI, which was replaced in July 2016 by the Department for International Trade, held a two-day showcase of the country's civil nuclear industry every year, Tynan said. "And I think there's scope for a UK R&D showcase."

Performing well

A spokesman for NNL said today it is performing well as a commercial business and receives high approval scores from its customers and stakeholders.

"However we recognise that the current commercial funding model of NNL is not perfect. It can limit NNL's ability to fulfil its remit as well as it might, since the level of NNL's 'earnings to reinvest' (essentially our operating profit) is currently insufficient to deliver a program of work which will fully realise the longer-term opportunities available. For example, on long-term R&D, NNL neither coordinates nor performs the breadth of research in advanced reactors (Gen IV) and fuel cycles needed to inform government policy or secure future value for the UK."

NNL's annual turnover is around £100 million ($125 million), of which more than 40% comes from Sellafield Ltd, where its work is focused on cleaning up the nuclear legacy on the Sellafield site. It also has major contracts with EDF Energy and Rolls Royce to carry out post-irradiation examination work. For EDF Energy this relates to fuel and graphite from the AGR reactor fleet. For Rolls Royce this concerns examination of fuel from the UK's nuclear submarine fleet. Collectively, Sellafield, EDF Energy and Rolls Royce account for over 80% of NNL's revenue, the spokesman said.

NNL receives no grant funding from government, but it sometimes performs work where a branch of government is the customer, to deliver specific packages of work.

"We do not advocate becoming solely government-funded, but we feel that a revised model might deliver a better balance and allow us to operate more effectively as a true national laboratory. Such a model would certainly retain a significant volume of commercial work to maintain efficiencies and customer focus, sustain skills and utilise facilities and generate revenue," the spokesman said.

"This could be augmented with some core funding from government that would enable NNL to lead longer-term, strategically important R&D that utilises NNL's capabilities alongside those of the UK supply chain of universities, national laboratories and industry in a collaborative and coordinated manner."

NNL plans to address these issues more fully in its written submission to the House of Lords inquiry, and when its CEO Paul Howarth gives verbal evidence to the committee in the next few weeks. 

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News