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What is the future of nuclear energy?

15th June 2018

Categories: Latest News

Professor Francis Livens,

Professor of Radiochemistry, Director of Dalton Institute, The University of Manchester

For a sector which has the reputation of being conservative and resistant to change, the nuclear industry is evolving fast.

Over the last 15 years, the UK has embarked on a massive £115 billion, 120-year clean-up programme, dealing with its legacy from 70 years of industrial nuclear energy, many of the first generation of nuclear nations such as the USA and Germany are moving away from nuclear power, while later entrants, mainly in the Far East, are building reactors as fast as they can.

Proponents of nuclear power are looking to new, smaller reactor concepts which might be deployed in novel ways, for example, to provide industrial process heat as well as electricity, or to power a remote community which is isolated from the grid. Everyone accepts that nuclear, which has become synonymous in many countries with ‘over time and over budget’, has to change. Manchester, the University where Rutherford demonstrated the first nuclear reaction 101 years ago, and which has a long history of nuclear research, remains fully involved in this complex world.

We are just starting to explore the potential of robots and artificial intelligence to change the nuclear sector. Robots can go into dangerous places and Manchester leads a major nuclear robotics project (Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear; https://rainhub.org.uk/about/the-rain-project/).

Projects include developing a small, remotely operated underwater vehicle which can be deployed in the damaged Fukushima reactors to provide information on what is there, and on radiation fields (https://rainhub.org.uk/testing-the-avexis-in-fukushima/).

Also, as the UK deals with its legacy of radioactive waste, we will accumulate hundreds of thousands of packages, which will be stored for many years before eventually being disposed of underground. Monitoring these packages is tricky- they are (obviously) radioactive and are packed closely together so manual surveillance is slow and inefficient. Can we develop ‘smart’ packages which can monitor themselves and communicate this information?

Together with several partners, Manchester has been involved in developing the ‘U-Battery’ concept (https://www.u-battery.com/what-is-u-battery). This ‘micro-reactor’ was originally developed by The University of Manchester with the University of Delft in the Netherlands. It produces less than 1% of the power of a conventional large reactor but its radical design makes it easy to build, set up and operate. Its potential application is now being explored in Canada, where it is very difficult to provide reliable, economic power to remote communities.   

The reality, of course, is that in many countries, not least the UK, anything ‘nuclear’ is controversial. Much of the time and cost associated with nuclear arises from the perception that it is ‘special’ - well, is it?

The way the nuclear sector is organised, managed and regulated has a huge impact on the behaviour of individuals and organisations, and there is a huge aversion to risk in all its forms - health, safety, environmental, contractual, commercial - which has an enormous impact on time and cost. Is this really the right thing to do, or do we need to encourage a little more risk taking, particularly in the commercial and contractual arrangements we use?

Nuclear is not isolated from the society in which it exists and its relationship with its host communities governs it success or failure. These are all complex issues, and Manchester’s scientists and engineers have set up The Beam (http://www.mub.eps.manchester.ac.uk/thebeam/) a forum to work with social scientists and the Alliance Manchester Business School to explore these multi-dimensional questions.

If you’re attending the World Nuclear Exhibition 2018, click here for more information and to book a meeting with David Hilton, Head of Business Development – Advanced Manufacturing, MIDAS and find out how Manchester, the birthplace of nuclear physics, can help you.

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