Why the nuclear sector presents huge collaboration potential for UK plc

nuclear sectorTo achieve its aims the nuclear sector must be open to ideas and expertise from other areas of industry.  Professor Andrew Sherry, Chief Scientist, National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) examines the opportunities for collaboration

With the UK seeking to replace and decommission its fleet of advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors, our industry is on the cusp of major change.

This change will spark a series of major engineering projects, likely to create a plethora of opportunities for businesses looking to collaborate with the sector over the next decade.

What those projects will look like is the focus of big debate. Should they build big like Hinkley Point C, which requires significant investment upfront and will take many years before revenue is generated? Or would it be more economical to commit to a series of smaller projects that are easier to get off the ground financially and will produce a faster return on investment across the nuclear sector?

nuclear sector
Hinkley Point C in Somerset will be the first of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Finding ways to do nuclear more economically is an imperative for the industry – and discovering the methods by which we can achieve this is a key objective for the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). If we are to achieve this mission we also recognise that we cannot afford to be insular in our approach.

We must be open to ideas coming into our sector from the outside. That desire to build partnerships is so strong that Innovation through Collaboration is the theme of our annual NNL Sci Tec conference this year.

Nuclear sector Collaboration

When you take a closer look at the nuclear sector, you can see that there is huge scope for collaboration. Far from being distinct from other industries, there is an enormous amount of overlap. For example, we share a lot of materials and manufacturing commonality with sectors such as the oil and gas and chemical industries.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that we are dealing with a nuclear core – and that has a clear impact on our culture which is particularly risk averse. Our approach to safety, which we refer to as ‘defence in depth’, is embedded into the regulatory regime. But when you examine a nuclear power station, you can see that, in essence, much is a civil construction project like any other – with concrete, pumps, valves and welds. Hence our keen interest in working more closely with businesses operating outside of nuclear to bring in modern technologies that can enhance safety and reduce costs.

We want to bring in fresh thinking and are constantly reviewing technology and techniques being deployed elsewhere. This could be everything from reviewing how laser cutting is being used to decommission oil platforms to how advanced manufacturing technologies are producing components for aerospace faster. We are also looking at innovations such as digital technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence, to see if they have a place in waste management and inspections as well as advanced manufacturing technologies such as electron beam welding and hot isostatic pressing.

Importantly, fresh thinking can come in the form of business processes too. I recently chaired a roundtable discussion at the Royal Academy of Engineering with leaders from big UK industries including shipbuilding, satellites, digital and rail construction. What was clear from that discussion is that we all encounter the same business problems: collaboration in the supply chain, programme and risk management, financing and the ability to nurture culture and our future leaders.

For example, we all acknowledged that if we don’t widen our nuclear sector supply chains, we’ll get the same answer every time and never hear new ideas. There’s a lot to be gained from talking to different industries – especially when it comes to managing major engineering projects. Just look at the Olympic build or Crossrail. These were enormous civil construction programmes and we can learn a lot from the way they managed to reduce and share the risks involved with their suppliers.

International outlook

For those organisations wanting to collaborate with the nuclear industry, there are also growing opportunities to export expertise, products and services. This will only be heightened as our domestic civil nuclear programme starts to move away from advanced gas-cooled reactors, which are unique to the UK, and embraces light water reactor technologies.

We’ve witnessed a real groundswell of pro-nuclear thought in recent years, including amongst some of the environmental community

The nuclear community is also very international in nature, as there is a recognition that development in one country will quickly impact the rest of the world. This allows for expertise originating in the UK to spread to other countries, be that the Far East, Europe, the Middle East or the US.

We can’t ignore the fact that public perception of nuclear varies from country to country, and political decisions can impact demand for nuclear power, but the prospects for the industry internationally are extremely bright. We’ve witnessed a real groundswell of pro-nuclear thought in recent years, including amongst some of the environmental community. There is a recognition that if we are serious about tackling global warming then nuclear energy is one of the most important low carbon alternatives available to us.

When looking at the nuclear sector, the situation can be summed up by echoing the sentiments of Lord Hutton in last year’s House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report. In essence, do we want to be a country that does nuclear, or a country that has nuclear done to us? We clearly believe that we should be the former, and with international energy requirements growing rapidly, there are huge incentives for UK businesses to drive innovation within the nuclear industry to generate low-carbon, low-cost nuclear electricity and to decommission our nuclear legacy safely and cost-effectively.