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


Memorandum submitted by Professor R A Williams, Centre for Particle and Colloid Engineering, University of Leeds

  I am providing comments on the above with specific reference to the UK's Research Skills and the UK's Energy Technology Capability.

  1.  There is no doubt that action needs to be taken on enhancing the UK's own position in nuclear energy provision, since it provides the logical solution to alternative, less environmentally attractive options and more risky (yet to be delivered) alternative technologies (fuel cells).

  2.  The proposed energy balance mooted in the energy review document does not add up (as widely cited, eg The Chemical Engineer, March and April 2002 issues). The nuclear option is the only serious contender to make a substantial impact in terms of CO2 emission targets.

  3.  The UK has a strong, internationally leading position in reactor design and operation that can be enhanced to build a global business to benefit the nation internally and externally. My own association has been through observing the growing relationship between BNFL and Westinghouse and their new pebble mill reactor that are able to provide the basis for future reactor needs.

  4.  In the UK the perception of engineering as a university degree option is weak and nuclear engineering even more so. We have recently started a new nuclear process engineering option at Leeds since we see this as being a strategic need. Students visiting BNFL at Springfields and Sellafield never fail to be impressed by the quality and scale of the engineering there. However, if we are to deliver the skill base there is an urgent need for funding to promote nuclear education, through scholarship, and for the UK to be proud and positive about its technology. It is very sad to compare attitudes in the UK with those in France and Japan who have adopted the logical solution to energy provision. To provide trained graduates and research action is needed urgently since the pull through to the user will be five-10 years. We must keep our options open and ensure our skills base is maintained.

  5.  Specifically in relation to research training I am confident this can be done, for example, based on my recent appointment as Director of BNFL's Research Alliance in Particle Technology at Leeds (some details are enclosed). The drive and flair shown in the development of these Alliance activities this, relatively, has been enormous and is attracting small numbers of postgraduate researchers. Funding for research has been modest. Such partnerships must be encouraged and real research funds must be made available from the government to address key technology challenges affecting the industry. In my view, this requires a special dedicated initiative through EPSRC/DTI.

  6.  There are good opportunities for international collaboration in research and funding sums need to encourage such activities, eg UK-USA and UK-Japan. The University of Leeds is exploring such approaches through its World Universities Network at present.

  There is an immediate need, in relation to comments made in point five (above) for proactive support of undergraduate training to ensure retention of the skill base against an overall negative attitude to engineering and science in UK school leavers. This requires urgent action and a change in attitude towards the industry to be displayed by government. In the UK, nuclear engineering should be rightly regarded as a valuable asset that is enabling production of clean energy using British based ingenuity.

4 September 2002

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