Funding the future3 July 2002
Industry-university research alliances may not cure the difficulties that UK nuclear research faces. However, coupled with other initiatives with higher education establishments, these alliances place nuclear research on a firmer footing than has been the case for many years. By professor Richard Clegg
In the 1950s and 1960s, as the nuclear industry was growing, most British universities taught nuclear-related courses and many had research groups in the field, such as radiochemistry and nuclear engineering. But as the expansion of the industry slowed down, the demand declined and universities began dropping the subject from their syllabuses. This was accompanied by a corresponding fall in government sponsored research on nuclear fission R&D, with the end result being the closure of important departments and the gradual loss of specialist nuclear facilities and skills.
The statistics speak for themselves, in that between 1960 and 1990 the teaching and research of radiochemistry, for example, decreased ten-fold in the UK. The OECD has charted the overall weakening of the position, and it has been commented on by the Royal Society, who has said: "The relevant scientific and technological research base has been seriously diminished and needs urgently to be re-invigorated."
The Health and Safety Executive, in its February 2002 report on nuclear education in British universities was even more blunt, stating: "If nuclear education was a patient in hospital it would be in intensive care." The conclusions of this report are outlined on page 38 of this issue.
This decline has taken place at the same time as major changes in the UK nuclear industry situation. UK nuclear companies, including BNFL, have become significant players in the global nuclear market. Even the market itself is changing with the expansion of nuclear programmes in the Far East and growing opportunities for clean-up and decommissioning of nuclear facilities in a market estimated to be worth as much as $500 billion.
Even before the OECD survey BNFL had recognised the skills issue as key to its ability to exploit these changing markets, and had started to take action to preserve the skills the company expects to need.
BNFL has been active for a long time in supporting science and technology education in the UK, encouraging youngsters into science and engineering careers. At the other end of the scale, the company has launched a "fellows scheme", to attract experienced post-doctoral researchers into the industry. This scheme combines academic research work with the experience of solving real issues on operational plant. However, these schemes are not of themselves sufficient to ensure that the appropriate skills are retained and strengthened. With government-funded nuclear research at a low level, BNFL has been forced to develop a strategy for dealing with potential skill shortages in disciplines key to its future.
An obvious possibility was to work with universities. Many already had contacts (and contracts) with BNFL and, after discussions with several universities and a number of other companies with similar problems, the idea of the research alliance was born.
The basis of the alliance is shared funding of a research programme over a period of about five years. The intention is that they should become self-supporting in the medium term. They are envisaged as multi-disciplinary centres with their own director, set up inside an existing department or institute. Typically they will support a total of 30-40 academic staff each - a size which should help to guarantee some stability in the skill base and allow for staff movement. Also key to the idea is that the alliances should form their own international academic networks with other institutions in the same field, providing access to facilities or expertise that are not immediately available.
Clearly, the levels of investment involved mean that careful thought is required to decide on the topics for the alliances. BNFL has settled on four topics which, it could be argued, form BNFL's technical backbone: radiochemistry, particle technology, immobilisation and materials.
Taken together these four alliances represent a substantial investment by BNFL, not just in its own future, but into the underpinning technological base of the UK. The value of the alliances has already been demonstrated by the completion of the first PhD in plutonium chemistry in the UK for a number of years.
In June 1999, after discussions with a number of UK universities, BNFL established a Centre of Radiochemistry Research at Manchester University. A new BNFL professor in radiochemistry, and two new lecturers were appointed, and the overall research base is now close to 40 personnel. The newly refurbished radiochemistry laboratories at Manchester University were opened in spring 2001. These laboratories are a unique facility in a UK university enabling researchers at Manchester to safely study the chemistry of actinides and fission products using a wide array of modern spectroscopic tools.
At the technical level, the radiochemistry centre is establishing expertise across 11 areas, including:
• Actinide and fission product co-ordination chemistry.
• Radioelement biogeochemistry.
• Low-level analytical chemistry.
• Radiation chemistry.
• Molecular modelling of actinides.
A key element of the strategy for the radiochemistry centre is to ensure it has effective networks with other leading world class centres around the world. Already strong links have been built up with institutions such as Rossendorf, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. Joint projects are being planned as well as student secondments.
The last piece in the jigsaw was the decision by BNFL to open up its own research facilities to researchers from the radiochemistry centre. This includes the new BNFL Technology Centre (BTC) at Sellafield, which provides active laboratories including MOX and highly active (HA) cells in a building footprint of approximately 8,750m2. This will allow the team to safely study the fundamental chemistry of highly active actinide materials, including plutonium compounds, in specialised state-of-the-art facilities.
Overall, the business plan for the centre aims to build a research income of around £10 million, including grants from the UK science councils, supporting a research base of around 40 people.
Particle science and technology
The second research alliance to be launched was in the field of particle technology, with the School of Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering at the University of Leeds. Again a new professorship, in particle technology, was created together with two more academic positions.
Particle technology is a topic as important to BNFL as radiochemistry, impinging on many stages of fuel manufacture and in the safe treatment of radioactive wastes.
As such the alliance will be interacting with many parts of BNFL including the Westinghouse and ABB businesses. The intention is that the research will contribute to improvements in plant operations and process design. It will also ensure that BNFL has access to the university's experience in other industries. For example some of the technical issues in the pharmaceuticals industry are similar to those BNFL experience when making fuel.
Waste immobilisation features the technologies of vitrification, cementation and the use of ceramics in the treatment of nuclear waste to allow for long-term storage. These technologies are a key part of BNFL's portfolio and vital for the management of used nuclear fuel and for the decommissioning and clean up of nuclear facilities throughout the world.
This third alliance, launched in August 2001, teams BNFL with the University of Sheffield's Department of Engineering Materials. The joint venture will create up to 40 research positions in the department.
The choice of Sheffield was based on its technical strengths in glass and cement science. Five new academic posts will be established to work on the underpinning science and technology behind immobilising nuclear wastes.
As with the previous centres the aim is to stimulate research, encourage the publication of results and to take an active part in organising conferences and workshops. It will also form links and establish networks with other organisations carrying out work in this area, particularly in the US and Europe.
The centre in Sheffield will use no radioactive material. All studies will use simulated wastes (where similar elements are substituted for radioactive ones) and mathematical modelling techniques.
The final research alliance is due to be launched in the near future and will cover the subject of materials performance. Its remit will cover such issues as corrosion, performance of materials in high radiation environments and non-destructive testing and examinations - all areas vital to safety and to maximising lifetime performance of key plant and equipment.