Above: The Dalton Nuclear Institute is a longstanding UK partnership between industry and academia focussed on decommissioning

In October 2023, a longstanding partnership between the University of Manchester and the UK’s nuclear decommissioning sector was named as one of the winners of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Bhattacharyya Award. Funded by the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the annual Bhattacharyya Award celebrates collaboration between academia and industry and is awarded to a UK university or college that has demonstrated a sustained, strategic industrial partnership in any academic discipline that has benefitted society and is deserving of national recognition.

The University of Manchester won for providing expertise for quicker, safer nuclear decommissioning. The UK has accumulated a large, complex nuclear legacy and since 2002 the nuclear academic community at The University of Manchester has coordinated skilled people, impactful research and support for government policy development, latterly as the Dalton Nuclear Institute.

Professor Francis Livens, Director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, has been with the group from its birth. Talking to NEI he said: “We are extremely proud of this collaboration – we have built these relationships over more than two decades, and they have involved several hundred researchers across multiple disciplines.”

Discussing the award and the Dalton Nuclear Institute, Livens looked back 20 years to the birth of the collaboration. At the time he had 10 years behind him as an academic and “From a personal perspective I have always been interested in doing research that related to the real world”. His appointment at the time had been sponsored by the UK’s fuel cycle and nuclear waste company, then known as BNFL. He says, “They provided some guidance and some funding, and some contacts with interesting people in their own organisation” which helped Livens start to build a research group. Crucially, he says, “I learned so much about the world of nuclear that I never knew.”

Through BNFL “I was introduced to bits of the industry that I had never heard of and thought they were very interesting” as well as to colleagues in academia. “You realise you have areas of common interest and that sparks new ideas. What you learn from that is networking, contacts and ideas. [I met] an awful lot of people who were really generous with their time and their ideas.”

The Dalton Nuclear Institute

How did that informal network of like-minded people become a recognised group? Initially, BNFL made a £2m ($2.6m) investment into a Centre for Radiochemistry Research. “That took us from being a group centred around one individual academic to a group of four academics”. It was a “big step up in volume, in investment” and it allowed for academics with diverse activities. The four worked as a group, with some closely associated with industry and others less so. But that meant “We had different touchpoints with the sector and that worked well.” Livens says the change from one person to having four with complementary interests multiplied the opportunities because each academic has their own network.

The group also provides important early feedback: Livens recalls a proposal he was working on last year: “by the time I had floated it round my colleagues it was very different”.

There was an element of chance in the group’s eventual focus on decommissioning. “At the time BNFL saw itself as a single organisation that was going to sell nuclear fuel cycle services to the world. So there was lots of encouragement from them for us to be involved in the chemistry of nuclear fuel reprocessing,” says Livens. But after a couple of years the UK government produced a policy paper on ‘Managing the Nuclear Legacy’, which resulted in “the complete turnaround of the nuclear sector, breaking up of BNFL and a much stronger focus on environment, waste and decommissioning.” The group saw a change in priorities and the environmental and remediation work that had come second to reprocessing moved to the top of the agenda.

Livens says the group’s mix of interests allowed it to change tack: “There is something about having a broad portfolio which means there is work that is immediately interesting and relevant, but also long term work and work that is undertaken just because it is interesting”. He adds, “Over a period of a couple of decades things emerge and things disappear again. If a university can’t retain that portfolio and ramp things up and down as required, then who can?”

Expanding the network

As the initial collaboration grew, Livens says, “other departments started to build capability. For example, what is now our Earth and Environmental Sciences Department made an appointment in environmental radioactivity, because there was enough going on between the departments that they felt there was more they could develop.” That scientist, Katherine Morris, is now Professor of Environmental Radiochemistry, heading a team of collaborators and several labs. Livens says “Similarly our chemical engineering dept made an appointment. That’s the model we followed and there are a number of nuclear foci around the university now, like the materials performance centre. You start to have a network of networks.”

The expanding networks bring in people from other disciplines, “People who have been working on, say, the oil and gas side in geology, lots of what they do is relevant in things like geological disposal of radioactive waste”. They make the connection with nuclear, perhaps for the first time, while in return the group’s chemists can work with experts in geology.

The network became the Dalton Nuclear Institute in 2005, when what was formerly the Victoria University merged with UMIST and created The University of Manchester. “As part of that process they created a small number of interdisciplinary institutes to cut across the disciplines, and one was the Dalton Nuclear Institute. That recognised the reality – nuclear had a lot of horizontal connections – but it gave that community an identity”.

What is more, the Dalton Institute had a profile and some resource. Livens says the profile helps in external engagement – “you can talk to regulators, to government, to industry”. It also provides a ‘shop window’ that allows interested outsiders to bypass the university’s “massively complicated” structure, “If they want, for example, to find someone who knows about stress corrosion cracking”.

Dalton has also been important because it allowed for recognition that nuclear is not just science and technology. The Institute has two complementary activities. The first is social science: “Going back five years we set up ‘the BEAM’ a collaboration between interested science and technology people and some of our social scientists …you are getting a very different perspective and a different challenge”. In the real world there are issues like the ‘social license to operate’, so decommissioning “is a long way from just being a science and engineering problem. That perspective has been really valuable.”

The second is to find more communication pathways, via the Dalton Nuclear Policy Group, which has so far published four ‘position papers’. “Those are starting to have some traction because we are relatively objective as a university, no-one is paying us to do it, we have access to a lot of intellectual horse power, and one thing we can do its produce really good quality output. It’s a more useful means of putting material out there than a journal paper.”

Return on investment

Asked about why the Institute has been successful, Livens says time to grow is vital, “because ultimately this is about building understanding and building relationships”.

In practical terms it meant that when BNFL set up the Centre for Radiochemistry Research it invested £2m ($2.6m) over five years. “On the strength of that commitment the university put in matching funding. So suddenly you have a decent platform. If BNFL had said you will have £2 million this year and nothing next, we would have used most of the £2 million because we would have had to spend it in the year we had it and then you would have had a massive hangover. Significant cash is important but so is duration.”

He explains that it was fundamental to allowing researchers to be appointed: “The university had enough confidence, with funding for five years, to bring people in, let them establish themselves, and to convince itself that they would be self-sustaining as academics beyond the end of that five-year period. Subject to performance they would be normal tenured academics.” He adds, “There is a model that you grow something, you network it, and now we have done it several times and we have networked all those together and that is giving us the horsepower”.

He agrees that academia and industry differ in the way they spend their money and how they look for a return and there is a need to align those two things. “Often the funding comes in for projects. One of the ways I look at it is that we have the squad and we are asked to pick a team from the squad to deal with a particular project. We can dip into nuclear graphite, nuclear fuels, corrosion, chemistry, thermal hydraulics – you can go around the network and build a team to respond to an opportunity.”

Livens adds that the group has to understand how its strengths differ from industry. It’s not an option to solve a problem on the process line on the day, for example. “Universities are not very good at being quick. Realistically we are not as flexible as the commercial supply chain. I would say we need 12 months and preferably closer to three years – not immediate problem solving,” although some institutions are good at being responsive.

As for problems along the way, he references consistency again: “If the funding tap is turned off, capability drops as people take on other work.”

Now Livens is looking forward to opportunities arising from a shift in the UK’s decommissioning structure. “There are some really interesting things from the reorganisation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority over the last few years.” This government-owned body with responsibility for closed sites was previously structured as a number of site licence companies “which meant different organisations with different drivers”. A new contracted structure offers “big opportunities to optimise things like the whole waste life cycle, from retrieval to treatment, packaging, storage and disposal.” Watch this space.