Mike Lawrence of the National Nuclear Laboratory

5 min read

Mike Lawrence of the National Nuclear Laboratory explains the activities and challenges undertaken by the nuclear technology services provider.

With more than 40 years’ experience in the nuclear sector in the US, you might have thought that Mike Lawrence would be looking forward to retirement. But Lawrence, a fuel-cycle specialist whose career has included handling wastes dating back as far as the Manhattan Project, has just embarked on another challenge: he is managing director of the new team in charge of the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), based at Sellafield.

The NNL’s activity is spread over six sites, with Sellafield the largest single facility. Lawrence said: ‘Our main tasks are to maintain and enhance the nuclear skillbase in this country, and to be a centre of excellence for nuclear science and technology. But of course, first and foremost we have to support our customers, of which Sellafield and the clean-up of the site is one of the most important.’

The NNL takes care of the scientific side of the nuclear industry. It offers services such as waste and residue management, process plant support, modelling and simulation, expertise in materials and corrosion, environmental management, and the homeland security aspects of the industry, such as non-proliferation measures.

Activities are centred around the Central Laboratory at Sellafield, currently under a process of development in a three-phase programme, comprising facilities for low-activity wastes, medium-activity including plutonium-containing wastes, and high-activity cells for handling extremely active and toxic waste products. ‘Once the full Central Laboratory has been commissioned, it will be the most up-to-date, advanced nuclear laboratory in the world,’ Lawrence said. ‘To be able to put that combination of the relevant, pertinent work that’s going on at Sellafield into a state-of-the-art facility like the Central Laboratory gives us a unique capability to offer our customers.’

Lawrence has been at the NNL for a little more than a month, heading a team made up from three institutions. His background is at the Battelle Memorial Institute, specialising in the nuclear fuel cycle, where spent fuel is processed to recover fissionable materials and turned into new fuels. Over the past three years, Lawrence explained, Battelle has been working with the Dalton Institute at the University of Manchester, and Serco to put together a bid to manage the NNL, which was the subject of a government-run competition. ‘We came together and found that our collective skills were very complementary for running NNL, so we formed a team to do that,’ he said. ‘Technically, it’s led by Serco and Manchester and Battelle is a subcontractor, but in practicality we work as one big team.’

Lawrence said his skills are well suited to the NNL’s work. ‘I have four decades of experience in nuclear matters, including managing and operating large nuclear sites similar to Sellafield, managing nuclear laboratories, international work, government programmes and policy development. I think that is very appropriate both for what the NNL is doing today and what it’s doing in the future.’

One of the NNL’s major tasks is to ensure that the existing nuclear plants in the UK can continue to operate for as long as they are licensed. He said: ‘We do work for British Energy and for Magnox, analysing their fuels and materials in the reactor to make sure they are within their safety envelope.’

Although all of the plants — with the exception of Sizewell B in Suffolk — are expected to be decommissioned within the next 10 years, there is a possibility that some could run for longer, he added. ‘The longer you operate the plant, the more power you produce and the cheaper the power is going to be: that’s the business case. But you have to have solid technical proof that the systems and components are not breaking down and that the systems are operating properly, so you can assure the public that the reactor can operate for longer and still be safe; that is where we come in.’

The proposed new reactor build will also be keeping Lawrence and his team busy. ‘We can support the new build very significantly,’ he said. ‘We can provide systems to suppliers and vendors with analysis of materials for fuels, systems, processes used in reactor systems, and help in terms of the specifications they need to establish to maintain and ensure they meet regulatory standards. We can also support the regulators in their safety and environmental analysis, and I think we can support the government in its planning and approach for how nuclear can fit into the energy needs and balance in the UK.’

Nuclear’s place in a balanced slate of energy generation technologies is something Lawrence is passionate about. ‘I am totally in favour of renewables,’ he said. ‘They are very important, but they can’t solve the climate change problem themselves. They are starting from a very low point, and even with the substantial investment in R&D they have a long way to go before they can make a significant contribution. We need nuclear in there.’

While the new designs likely to be built in the UK are far more standardised and generic than the previous, mainly bespoke fleets, they still vary from area to area and country to country, and some adaptation is always needed. Lawrence added: ‘You can envision environmental standards differing from country to country, so what may be released in some countries could not be in another; you’d need systems to capture and dispose of those contaminants if necessary. And seismic criteria can exist locally, and you’d have to adapt the reactor.’

Underlying the work on existing and future plants is the thorny issue of legacy waste, something that the UK has in abundance and a variety of exotic and nasty forms, owing to its early pioneering research into reactor systems. ‘I think it is very important that we are doing everything we can to assist in the clean-up of legacy waste, and to make sure that is not an impediment to new build, and also to fully support the development of the repository programme to ensure that there’s an answer to the question of what to do with the waste once it’s generated through new build.’

The legacy waste issue is particularly tricky, and one that Lawrence has experience of. ‘In the 1980s, I was the manager of the Hanford site in Washington State, and we had 53 million gallons of high-level waste, some of which dated back to the Manhattan Project,’ he said. ‘At Sellafield, we have the problem that different flow sheets have been used throughout the years, so we can’t be sure that the waste tanks contain the same materials. A system for dealing with one set of wastes won’t be suitable for another, produced when the processes and the chemicals might have changed, and over the years they have stabilised or precipitated.’

The key to handling these systems is to take representative samples for analysis. ‘That is much harder than it sounds, because the wastes stratify and settle out. Then you have to look at the flowsheets and the separation and vitrification processes you have to make sure you can handle the waste.’

For Lawrence, the NNL’s location at Sellafield is a rare and positive advantage, and one he has communicated to the staff. ‘They are on a nuclear materials manufacturing and processing site, with fuel-cycle activities and waste management and disposal activities taking place: it’s like having a wonderful experiment going on in your backyard where you have the experience and the ability to work on real issues and solve real problems, and then take them back to your lab and apply the science elsewhere.’

Lawrence also sees that he has a responsibility to future generations of nuclear engineers and scientists. ‘In the major nuclear countries there are people like myself reaching retirement age, and because of the hiatus in the industry in the 1980s onwards there isn’t a pipeline of people coming through. There are people filling the jobs, but they just don’t have the depth or breadth of experience we older guys have. It’s very important for us to train and impart our knowledge to people coming along before we retire.’