Interview with our Chief Science and Technology Officer, Dr Fiona Rayment

1. The theme of NNL’s strategy is nuclear science to benefit society. What does this mean to you?

Every so often in your lifetime, if you are lucky, you come across a window of opportunity where everything comes together at a single time and you feel you can really make a positive difference. I know this sector is going to help the country achieve so much of what it needs to do.

I don’t just mean climate change, but the wider energy challenge too, the likes of which we have never seen before either nationally or internationally. The demand for electricity could double and even quadruple just as we are trying to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions to net zero.

To meet that target, we will need to completely and utterly transform the way we produce and consume energy; not just electricity but the totality of what we do as a nation both within our homes and industrially. I’ve been in this sector for 30 years and the reason I got interested in energy is because we could never take the supply for granted when I was a child – not only do I remember being sent home to study three days a week during the miners’ strike because there wasn’t enough heat for school buildings, I also remember in a separate year having to do my homework by candlelight because of power cuts.

By providing clean, affordable and reliable energy, nuclear new build projects and our advanced technologies will make a fundamentally important contribution to our future energy mix.

Coupled with that, there are some really significant opportunities to take what we know about nuclear science and apply it to other areas, not least in healthcare which is another great example of how our sector can directly improve people’s lives.

There are space applications too and it was so exciting earlier this year to see NASA’s Perseverance rover, which used a nuclear radioisotope for electricity and heat, landing on Mars.

2. NNL’s work is going to be focused on four Focus Areas. Tell us about how and why these were chosen:

Our Focus Areas make perfect sense because they all have three qualities in common: they are all greatly needed by the UK, they are all areas we are working on now, and they all are areas where we have the capability – by which I mean the infrastructure and skills – to expand and work with the whole of the nuclear sector to successfully contribute.

Our first Focus Area is Environmental Restoration. Historically, a lot of NNL’s focus has been on researching how we produce fuels and materials and how to recycle them once they have been used within a nuclear reactor. Because of this work, our experience and expertise in decommissioning and waste management is recognised throughout the world.

We have a distinctive heritage in Environmental Restoration, but our skills, knowledge and infrastructure play into all three of our other Focus Areas. Take our Clean Energy Focus Area, for example, which is very important to the UK, with the contribution of large, small and advanced nuclear plants featuring strongly in the government’s Energy White Paper and its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. We are applying our expertise in fuels, spent fuels and a whole range of other subjects such as materials chemistry to drive the Clean Energy agenda.

Our third Focus Area is around Health and Nuclear Medicine. It draws on the experience, expertise and credibility I have described and looks at how this can be applied to other societal needs. A lot of what we have done over the years includes the separation of radioisotopes to very high levels of purity so that they can be recycled for new purposes. Just as a radioisotope has been used by NASA in space, they are also used in healthcare. We are aiming to springboard the expertise we have to develop new capability for the future, focusing on supporting the medical community to diagnose and treat a range of debilitating health conditions from cancer to dementia.

Last, but by no means least, in order to do all of this you have to make sure the materials that are used are managed safely and securely, not just now but in the decades to come. This is why Security and Non-Proliferation, an area we already have significant capability in, is our fourth Focus Area.

3. Developing next generation reactors is part of the government’s plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. What are the priorities for NNL in delivering this?

Advanced reactors offer the potential for the nuclear sector to help create not just the step change in the quantity of zero carbon electricity the UK needs, but also to replace fossil fuels much more widely by creating a new supply of green hydrogen, fuels and heat. Partly because of this, they offer other significant benefits including making the system work in terms of economics and finance.

This is why it is really important that the UK explores advanced reactors. Our priority is to enable the government to set the right roadmap for the sector to deliver on this technology, and to enable the sector to deliver what is needed by society.

But before we can have advanced reactors running in the UK, we need to run a demonstrator, which we want to do in partnership with other nuclear organisations in the UK. Because of the infrastructure we maintain within NNL, we can support the UK’s understanding on the materials, fuels and waste management aspects of advanced reactors. We also have reactor physicists and engineers who understand the operations of reactor systems and will be able to look at how they operate, what their optimum safe envelopes are and also what the economics of each system are before they are brought to market.

Collaboration is key in the nuclear sector, because no single area of expertise resides in just one organisation. We would like to be in a situation where we operate a user facility for our infrastructure, so that academia, other national labs and the entirety of the supply chain can all access it. It will be the nuclear industry that goes on to sell and utilise reactor technology but our role is to underpin what the technology does, so that it can be successfully deployed within the commercial marketplace.

Advanced reactors offer the potential for the nuclear sector to help create not just the step change in the quantity of zero carbon electricity the UK needs, but also to replace fossil fuels much more widely by creating a new supply of green hydrogen, fuels and heat. Partly because of this, they offer other significant benefits including making the system work in terms of economics and finance.

4. What do NNL’s plans mean for the North West of England, and for the UK’s post-pandemic recovery plan?

Not all of our sites are in the North West, but our four laboratories are. By creating these opportunities in the region, we will be bringing high-skilled jobs and economic stimulus to our communities. This dovetails completely with the government’s agenda not just to unleash innovation, but also to level up regions including the North West and help our economy bounce back better from the coronavirus pandemic.

5. Later on in this Strategic Plan, we ask staff in the first few years of their career what they hope NNL will have achieved in 50 years’ time. What’s your answer to this question?

I hope that NNL has enabled the nuclear agenda to be back on track here in the UK, that our Focus Area of Environmental Restoration continues to move from strength to strength and we are reusing our decommissioned sites in the UK to better effect in the future; that a number of large, small and advanced nuclear reactors are operating in the UK, not just generating power but providing for the totality of the energy system that the UK requires; that NNL is generating radioisotopes to benefit medical diagnostics and treatments; that we are continuing to ensure the UK is an international thought leader in security and non-proliferation; and also for NNL to continue working with other sectors, including space and aerospace, to enable them to be successful.

People are the currency of the nuclear industry and as such I would like to see a diverse and innovative nuclear sector and NNL playing a pivotal role in establishing this.

2.1 Delivering for the New Nuclear Landscape