Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Bill Lee, Immobilisation Science Laboratory, University of Sheffield

  I am writing in response to the request for evidence to be put before the inquiry "Towards a Non-carbon Fuel Economy: Research, Development and Demonstration". I am a Professor of Engineering Materials at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Immobilisation Science Laboratory, which is performing extensive research on immobilising toxic and radioactive waste in cement, glass and ceramics. I will address points one to three, five and six of the committees' terms of reference.

  Achieving the Governments target of 20% renewable generation by 2020 will simply keep CO2 emissions steady at today's levels if current carbon-free nuclear capacity is closed and not replaced. Nuclear power generation makes a major contribution to CO2 abatement. As an active researcher in the field I am aware that the level of R&D expenditure in the nuclear area is miniscule compared to the position 20 years ago when centres such as those at AEA Harwell were funded from the public purse. The current lack of a national strategy for nuclear R&D has undoubtedly hindered the UK's competitiveness in the nuclear field. We still excel in nuclear research but this excellence will diminish without significant additional R&D funds as staff retire. It is also closely linked eg to BNFL who (for commercial reasons) may hold back publication of important results; this was not the position when funds for nuclear research came from the Government. In general nuclear R&D is under-funded and UK plc will lose its current international competitiveness without significant increases in research funding.

  The five* RAE-rated Department of Engineering Materials at the University of Sheffield (assisted by a £2 million award from BNFL plc) is developing an Immobilisation Science Laboratory (ISL) at the University. The centre is focused on the containment of toxic and radioactive waste in inorganic media; predominantly glass and cement. Studies examine the basic science underpinning the processing and storage of waste both experimentally using simulated waste streams and theoretically using a range of modelling techniques. Professor W E Lee is the director of the ISL and already a team of researchers has been assembled including seven PhD students, two senior research fellows and a technical manager. Three academic positions have been filled (Dr Michael Ojovan and Dr Neil Milestone as Senior Lecturers in glass and cement chemistry and Dr Guenter Moebus as Lecturer in microstructural characterisation), one in modelling techniques is being advertised and one is to be filled. Along with the involvement of current academic staff (Professor John Sharp, Professor Tony West and Dr Russell Hand) it is hoped to have 40 researchers working in this area within five years and to develop extensive links with other waste immobilisation research centres worldwide. We already are collaborating with several centres in the USA and EC. More information can be found at our web site (http//

  A plethora of recent reports and meetings including those of the House of Lords, Royal Society, the Foundation for Science and Technology, DEFRA, the NERC and EPSRC have highlighted the depletion of the science base for nuclear research in general and for nuclear waste management in particular. The demise and fragmentation of public research establishments such as AEA Harwell and AWE Aldermarston means that those still researching in the nuclear field are often employed by companies who do not encourage frank and full discussion of the fundamental scientific and technological difficulties of their work. More worrying the privatisation of the nuclear industry and separation into companies, such as BNFL and British Energy, means there is a potential (and strongly denied) conflict between commercial interest and the best long term plans for disposal of active waste. The UK now has a number of small groups, some based in universities and others in the private sector, working in a range of nuclear-related areas often with limited collaboration or open communication amongst them. This is an unhealthy situation for an industry where openness, communication and public perception are all important if it is to continue to supply a significant proportion of the energy to the UK market. The key driver for the publications listed is the need to maintain nuclear production in the medium term (most of the current generation of nuclear power stations will close by 2020 and they supply nearly one third of the UK's power). While improved energy conservation and alternative energy sources must be pursued they are unlikely to fill the energy gap that closing these stations will cause. The funding mechanisms must be modified to encourage all carbon-free power generation including nuclear.

11 August 2002

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