Nuclear Technology: safe, efficient, low-carbon energy generation
Despite its chequered past, nuclear energy is an important feature of world wide and UK electricity and power generation. According to Dr Paul Dorfman at Warwick Business School, the UK could soon emerge as Europe’s lone player in nuclear energy, as Germany, producer of a sixth of European energy, makes good its commitment to suspend its nuclear programme by 2022. And the Germans are not alone, with Italy, Belgium, Austria, Spain and Denmark all discussing plans to phase out nuclear activity. Whatever happens, a European energy shake up has interesting consequences for Britain, and potentially means big things for the Bristol and Bath area.
New nuclear build is a key issue for the UK, as older reactors come offline in the next few years. The current plans for expanding our nuclear infrastructure revolve around new plant designs that use technologies with the promise to make the plants safer and more efficient than their predecessors. It is vital that as new design nuclear reactors address issues of environmental and human safety, waste disposal and decommissioning.
Current research and commercial technologies include powerful spectroscopy and imaging of materials to identify defects before and during reactor activity. The beauty of these techniques lies in their ability to probe materials in detail, whilst being largely non-invasive. This means that engineers can improve their understanding of the materials required and identify problems, whilst maintaining reactor operation. Such technologies are a lead player in nuclear safety and innovation.
What is happening in the South West?
At the centre of recent nuclear innovation in the South West is the new Nuclear Research Centre (NRC), launched in November 2011. A collaborative venture between Bristol and Oxford Universities, the NRC aims to be a beacon for nuclear research initiatives, and will employ and train top physical scientists, engineers and social science experts. Bristol University Engineer and Co-Director Professor David Smith explains: “We want it to be the tip of the pyramid when it comes to nuclear innovation. Britain is a leader in nuclear, and this project aims to keep it at the cutting edge of energy developments.”The NRC is to have three main areas of expertise: Nuclear futures, advanced research and research applications. Within this framework, NRC experts will address how best to tackle nuclear safety issues for current new build, and help policy makers generate informed decisions.
There is already a considerable nuclear infrastructure in the South West, including key reactors at Oldbury and Hinkley Point, as well as a significant industrial presence and regional expertise.Rolls-Royce is one of the largest players in the South West, being synonymous with British aerospace and civil engineering. Currently Nuclear Power Plant manufacture and maintenance has to adhere to international safety standards, the two major ones being RCC-M and ASME-III. Within these guidelines, Rolls Royce offer expertise in designing and commissioning new builds, along with safety review procedures and fault screening.
Other firms based in the South West area include AMEC and Frazer-Nash. AMEC’s nuclear concern deals with waste management and decommissioning plants at the end of their life-cycle. They have worked closely with waste storage projects at Sellafield since 2002, and have worked to create new ventilation systems for airborne waste, which meet current Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) standards. A large part of their newer nuclear technology is based around remote radiological monitoring. Frazer-Nash also work on both new reactors and decommissioning projects. An example given on their website shows how computer technologies are now able to model and improve processes in the nuclear industry: providing an understanding of the temperature conditions in nuclear waste storage facilities.
Opportunities for business
There is no doubt that both research and industrial activity in the nuclear sector can create wealth; there is space for businesses to grow in the supply chain in the South West. New innovations and technology are required for a safe and secure nuclear future. These technologies need to adhere to risk assessment and strict manufacturing standards, but also required is a forward looking understanding of nuclear physics and chemistry, materials science and analysis, fluids and mechanical engineering, not to mention environmental science. Only with a rigorous grasp of these subjects can nuclear become a success story for the UK.
One opportunity is ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), an ambitious global research project into nuclear fusion. ITER’s construction offers UK companies a number of business opportunities including civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, consultancy services and project management through to instrumentation, advanced materials and precision engineering.
The Nuclear Industry Association has a nuclear supply chain portal where companies can find out about current opportunities. MAS-SW has the expertise to offer targeted strategic support to companies considering branching out into this arena, assisting in identifying opportunities.”We have knowledge of the fusion process, enabling us to identify companies that perhaps weren’t aware they possess the skills and knowledge to tender. ” says Paul Gilbert, Low Carbon and Innovation Specialist at MAS-SW. “Nuclear fusion could represent an essential new revenue stream to a number of South West firms” (ref. SW Innovation News).
Original piece publish Feb 2012, available at http://www.sciencecitybristol.com/pages/19-telling-the-story/items/308-nuclear-technology-safe-efficient-low-carbon-energy-generation