Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities - Science and Technology Committee Contents


18 July 2011

Members visiting: Lord Krebs (Chairman), Lord Broers, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Willis of Knaresborough. In attendance: Elisa Rubio (Clerk) and Rachel Newton (Policy Analyst). A second visit by Lord Wade of Chorlton and Lord Jenkin of Roding took place in September 2011.

National Nuclear Laboratory

Presentation by Professor Paul Howarth, Managing Director

Professor Howarth described the operation of NNL. NNL was created in July 2008 and in April 2009 became a GoCo. The duration of the contract was three years with the possibility of extending the contract by one year and then another year. NNL employs approximately 780 staff over six sites and has a turnover of approximately £80 million. As a GoCo, NNL's operational model was unique internationally in that it had no baseline funding and therefore had to compete for all of its work. Vital work was carried out at NNL to support safety cases for continued operation of Magnox and AGR reactors, fuel processing facilities, waste plants and transportation. NNL's main customers were Sellafield UK, EDF Energy, the NDA, Magnox, MoD, Westinghouse, other Government departments and agencies, and regulators.

Professor Howarth gave an overview of the R&D roadmap work on which they were leading (on behalf of the ERP) and NNL's proposed revised remit[474] to carry out more applied research of strategic need in the TRLs between universities and industry. He described French plans for advanced reactor deployment to 2060 and the timeline for deployment of Generation III and IV reactors. France's first demonstrator fast reactor was expected to become operational by 2021. Under current plans, France would be self-sufficient in plutonium by the end of the century due to their deployment of fast-breeder reactors. French plans contrasted with UK plans which went only up to 2025. The UK was one of the few countries that had demonstrated a fast breeder reactor but we were not working on this technology at present.

The question was raised as to why the UK industry was not funding more R&D work. It was suggested those the UK lacked a long-term strategy and vision for nuclear energy and that industry would not make investments when the future of nuclear energy in this country was unclear. Most companies involved in the nuclear industry were international companies which could invest in other countries that had better plans and visions.

Professor Howarth explained that a relatively small annual investment of £20-£30 million a year in nuclear R&D would position the UK on the world stage as a key player. The investment could see a return on that investment by a factor of 10 or 20 through leverage of international R&D programmes.

He also explained that NNL was in discussions with the CEA in France and laboratories in the United States about working in partnership and gaining access to their facilities for research. NNL was currently conducting an internal review which would look at whether there was sufficient demand to enable the Phase 3 laboratory to be commissioned as part of the overall requirements for highly active R&D facilities in the UK, including the use of the Windscale Laboratory.

Professor Howarth said that, at present, two PhD students from Manchester University were carrying out research at the Central Laboratory. Each summer they hosted a dozen students at NNL facilities, but agreeing access arrangements could be complicated because of site licence requirements. They also had their own intake of graduates each year and were currently sponsoring around 20 case award students. NNL had a number of formal visiting roles at universities including 12 visiting professors and six teaching fellows.

Presentation by Leigh Wakefield, Facilities and Safety Director

Mr Wakefield gave an overview of the Windscale Laboratory facility, a unique strategic asset in the UK, capable of handling irradiated nuclear fuel for post-irradiation examination. The facility had applications for all ongoing operational safety programmes. Windscale Laboratory consisted of a network of interlinked caves installed in the 1970s, as part of the Windscale Piles infrastructure. The NDA owned the facility with Sellafield Ltd as landlord and site license holder. NNL was the tenant and operator of the facility. The facility had suffered from a lack of investment for over 10 years which had resulted in a reduction in reliability of the facility. The combined long-term investment from NNL, Sellafield Ltd and the NDA would return the facility to full operational capability in five years. The operational cost of the facility was £10 million a year.

Tour of NNL

The facilities at NNL Central Laboratory were divided into three categories or 'Phases' according to their capabilities: Phase 1 to carry out desk-based assessments, non-active experimental work and low and medium radioactive R&D including work with plutonium; Phase 2, alpha generating radioactive materials and and larger quantities (kilogrammes) of plutonium; and Phase 3, to handle high alpha and gamma material including spent fuel and higher active nuclear waste in various forms.

Phase 1 facilities

Most of the work undertaken within Phase 1 laboratories and offices was non-active experimental work, low-level radioactive R&D and desk-based research. Manchester University had an agreement to bring in students to work at NNL but the complexity of the ownership of NNL made the laboratories difficult to access. At present the laboratories were being used about 40% of the time although, on average, use tended to be about 55% of the time.

Phase 2 facilities

Phase 2 is currently being commissioned and was designed to undertake research on advanced fuel manufacturing and work related to the MOX plant. The facility will be used initially to carry out research on plutonium storage, treatment of residues and to study the behaviour of material currently in a poor condition.

An example was also given of how americium decay products removed from plutonium could be used by the European Space Agency to produce fuel for the space programme.

Phase 3 facilities

The Phase 3 facility could handle higher radioactive materials in significant quantities as well as providing the necessary environment to carry out advanced fuel cycle R&D. The facility is unique internationally because the five boxes in which experiments were carried out were retractable. Once an experiment had been completed, the box could be removed to be cleaned, and a new one put in. It was also a facility which could allow technical underpinning work to be carried out to support the programme on the deep geological disposal of radioactive waste.

The Phase 3 facility have been in "care and maintenance" mode for five years. NNL were currently discussing with other companies in the UK and internationally the possibility of forming a consortium to commission and use the facilities. If the discussions were successful, this consortium would not be formed until the later part of 2012 and there were concerns about the funding for the "care and maintenance" of the facility until then. Commissioning the Phase 3 facilities would take three to five years in order to allow testing to be carried out. If, after 12-18 months, a consortium could not be formed, "care and maintenance" work would cease and the facility would be "mothballed".

Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

Presentation by Stephen Henwood, Chairman

Mr Henwood gave an overview of the NDA. He described its mission and preferred Government efforts to deliver risk and hazard reduction and to accelerate the decommissioning programme and clean-up (particularly for high hazard material). £1.5 billion a year was spent by the NDA at Sellafield. This was over 50% of total NDA spend. As a result of cutbacks in the Spending Review, NDA had scaled down the magnox programme, reducing staffing levels by 10%.

The research commissioned by NDA was "needs driven". The NDA now had sufficient knowledge to make progress with the Managing Radioactive Waste Programme. They were currently supporting the Phase 2 facilities which was, in their view, necessary to carry out research to meet their needs. Their need for the Phase 3 facilities was unclear, given that the Windscale Laboratory could handle higher active wastes if necessary.

Mr Henwood told the Committee that NDA had sufficient research capacity available to them, within the UK and internationally, to deliver decommissioning and clean up activities.

Sellafield Ltd

Tour of MOX Plant (SMP)

Since SMP had become operational in 2001, the plant had produced a total of 15 tonnes of MOX fuel instead of the 70 tonnes a year which it was designed to produce. New working processes were being introduced to increase capacity to 15 tonnes a year.[475]

Tour of Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP)

THORP reprocessed around 450 tonnes a year of nuclear fuel from AGRs and LWRs from around the world. Their current commercial contracts extended to 2018.

Spent fuel had a life of five years inside a reactor. The spent fuel was cooled on site for 100 days and then transported to Sellafield. There it would be cooled for five years and reprocessed. For new plants, under a once-through fuel cycle, the fuel would not need to be reprocessed before long-term disposal.

474   NRD 60 Back

475   In August 2011, the NDA announced that the MOX plant would be closed down at the earliest practical opportunity following a decline in orders from their sole Japanese client after the Fukushima incident. Back

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