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Nuclear Innovation UK

Fresh thinking on nuclear innovation

As part of the Nuclear Innovation UK conference in early July, members of the Nuclear Institute’s Young Generation Network and other nuclear professionals aged 18–36 were challenged with answering one of the most pressing questions facing the industry: how can the nuclear industry drive innovation in the supply chain?

Following initial submissions by email, the 10 most innovative thinkers were selected to present their ideas to the conference in a two-minute elevator pitch.

Delegates used the conference app to rate each presentation, and the three highest-scoring individuals were rewarded with one-to-one mentoring sessions with their choice of the senior speakers, as well as the opportunity to share their ideas in industry publications.

Nuclear Future is proud to present the winning ideas from Naomi Rutledge of NNL, Amr Saleh of BEIS, and James Leatherland of the Nuclear AMRC.

Thanks to all the presenters: Hannah Fenwick, NNL; Henry Cathcart, Frazer-Nash Consultancy; James Cornish, Frazer-Nash Consultancy; Joseph Nielson, Antech; James Gath, NNL; Thomas Jackson, Atkins; and Will Trewinnard, Atkins.

Picture: Ian Chapman, CEO of UKAEA


Removing barriers to innovation

Many individuals have ideas for how we can innovate, whether that’s to change a process, change the purpose of something, or create something new entirely. The supply chain is aware that the nuclear industry wants and needs innovation, but innovation carries a hefty time, money and reputation risk which the supply chain does not want to take on. Sometimes specific capabilities, equipment and facilities are required to innovate, increasing the risk even further.

To allow the supply chain to innovate, we must decrease these risks. By making innovation a part of bids, or by providing extra funds for innovation, we can share the risk with the supply chain, ensuring that they can innovate without risking their profit margin.

The financial risk can also be decreased by loaning capabilities, equipment or facilities free of charge or at an extremely reduced rate. This reduces the time, effort and money that the supply chain would have to spend, and would allow the supply chain to follow the market by innovating. Even then, there is still a reputation risk associated with innovation.

What do WD-40 and bubble wrap have in common? They both failed on their first attempts.   Bubble wrap was originally supposed to be a textured wallpaper, which obviously did not work out well. WD-40 stands for water displacement – this was the 40th attempt. Both prove that failure at the first attempt doesn’t mean failure overall.

Have you thought of what the next steps might be for an innovation? Could this result be applied in another way? Was this innovation ruled out as an option? By focusing more on what was learnt rather than the result, the reputation risk associated with innovation can be reduced.

Simply talking about innovation isn’t enough. We all have innovative ideas, but how often do we follow these through, even when the entire industry can agree that the innovation would be well accepted? How many times have we collectively thought that standardisation would be an amazing way to reduce costs and is something we should be doing? And how many times have we innovated in the way we work to apply this?

The sooner we start, the more we can innovate and the more innovations we will have in 10 years’ time. The sooner we innovate, the more chances we have for success.

Naomi Rutledge

          – Naomi Rutledge works in the thermal and structural modelling team at NNL. She will be mentored by NIRO director Fiona Rayment.


Weaving our digital thread

We all know that great innovation occurs when you move from one curve to the other, from the phone to the smartphone, or the 2D printer to the 3D printer. The real question for me is: what do our engineers look like on the other side of this curve? He or she will probably be connected to a supercomputer and a big AI system, where the human is essentially merged with a digital and virtual world.

Many pockets in the nuclear industry recognise the opportunities and challenges of digital. Some are taking bold actions, and some aren’t. I believe that if the industry wants to see real value being delivered through digital technologies, then we need to take a more holistic approach to digitalisation.

Rather than implementing randomly-selected buzzword technologies like blockchain onto random processes, let’s get the process right. Let’s build a common language for data and knowledge, with an agreed way of understanding and capturing the digital flow of information through the entire nuclear life cycle.

This is called a digital thread. It isn’t a software and it isn’t a product, it’s an approach. The digital thread should be able to tell us the history of any component or operation in the entire nuclear life cycle.

With a digital thread, the engineer of the future can see exactly how an idea went from someone’s mind to being modelled, manufactured, put into a plant, taken out of a plant and out of operation, and finally stored as waste. The digital thread connects the entire nuclear life cycle, from conception through to decommissioning.

A digital thread can drive innovation because we wouldn’t have to rely on tacit knowledge of why designs are the way they are. Those designs and the data behind them can be shared across the supply chain to help break down silos across the industry. And using shared data to collaborate across the value chain will allow for more services such as predictive and preventive maintenance.

In a world where we are building SMRs, AMRs and fusion reactors, the industry will have to demonstrate the robustness of first-of-a-kind technology without plant operation history. A digital thread will be able to clearly tell the story of the designs and assumptions used to underpin the engineering, giving confidence to regulators and investors. 

I believe that digital offers an opportunity to change the way we design and license reactors, and also change the way we work together. But the first step should be weaving our nuclear digital thread.

Amr Saleh wide

           – Amr Saleh is on secondment to BEIS from NNL as a strategic advisor. He will be mentored by NNL CEO Paul Howarth.


Unlocking TRLs in the nuclear sector

Technology readiness levels (TRLs) are a nine-step systematic way to track the progress of new technologies through to deployment, originally designed by Nasa. For once, we have a standardised system that, despite its cosmic routes, isn’t rocket science. In the nuclear sector, however, it is a process that we seem to struggle to get to grips with. 

Many describe TRLs 3-6 as the “valley of death”. For years, taking ideas from proof of concept to system prototype was seen as the most difficult part of technology development. In the past decade, the UK (like many other industrialised economies) has filled that valley by investing heavily in research programmes through EPSRC and Innovate UK, Catapult centres, site licence company R&D budgets and national laboratories.

We are now rich in funding, resources and facilities in this valley. Many will argue that the UK needs to invest more in technology to truly become a world leader in new nuclear and meet the net zero carbon emissions commitment but, for the challenges we face today, investment has and is being made. Despite this, the impact of that investment has either been limited or the benefit has not been tracked very well.

Technology development in the nuclear sector is difficult. It is particularly difficult when transitioning from TRL6 to TRL7 – from technology demonstration (off-site, inactive) to system prototype (on-site, active). At this critical point, new and difficult questions get asked of the technologists and researchers which aren’t generally the primary concerns in academia and R&D organisations. How are we going to buy this? Who benefits from the IP? Will this replace my job? Won’t this make my job harder?

We need to tackle these commercial and cultural barriers to technology deployment, and integrate them with technology much earlier in the TRL process to deliver what the nuclear sector needs. Rather than a valley of death, our sector has a multi-layered nuclear licence fence in the way of realising the benefits of new technology. We have crossed the valley of death, now we need to address the gap between TRL6 and 7.

James Leatherland

                  – James Leatherland is a project manager at the Nuclear AMRC. He will be mentored by ONR CEO Adriènne Kelbie.


Nuclear Innovation UK - Key Messages

The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre hosted its first major conference in July, sharing the latest industry innovations with companies from across the UK.

The Nuclear Innovation UK conference took place at Sheffield’s historic Cutlers’ Hall over 2–3 July 2019, with around 275 delegates including representatives from international organisations.

Organised by the Nuclear AMRC in collaboration with the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) and industry partners, the conference focused on research supported by the government-funded Nuclear Innovation Programme.

The Nuclear Innovation Programme is the UK’s first public investment in future nuclear fission for a generation. Closely linked to the Nuclear Sector Deal launched in June 2018, the programme funds research into manufacturing and materials and supports the development of new designs of advanced reactor.

Alongside technical presentations covering research projects from all areas of the Nuclear Innovation Programme, the conference featured guest speakers from across the nuclear sector discussing the challenges to innovation and what the industry needs to do to reach its full potential.

The need to innovate

In his keynote speech, Dr Tim Stone, chair of the Nuclear Industry Association, emphasised that the UK nuclear industry needs disruption and innovation if it’s to make its full contribution to reducing emissions.

Tim Stone wide

Picture: Dr Tim Stone

Speaking a few weeks after the UK government committed to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, Stone emphasised the monumental size of the challenge. With electricity demand likely to double as transport and heating are decarbonised, the UK will potentially need to quadruple its low-carbon generation.

“This is the hardest thing we’ll ever do in this country, bar none,” he said. “Getting to zero by 2050 has some challenges in there that make your eyes water when you get down to the minutiae.

“Nuclear has a fundamental part to play – you can’t do it without nuclear,” he continued. “To get there, the industry has to do a lot better. We’ve got to shift. It’s not just about little bits of innovation in hot isostatic pressing or whatever, we’ve got to do things differently.”

Other speakers discussed how the nuclear industry can embrace innovations and new ways of working from other sectors. National Nuclear Laboratory CEO Paul Howarth drew on his experience from his role as chair of the Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations, where he sees a rapid pace of innovation across a range of industry sectors.

“If you look at the technologies out there being developed, whether quantum computing or robotics or digital technologies, they’re moving rapidly and they’re seeing immense changes happening in their industries,” Howarth said. “In the energy sector, if we look at some of the other technologies, we are seeing rapid innovation happen as well. We are seeing costs of new generation dropping rapidly.

“We need to look at nuclear from the point of view that this could be a bit of a near-death experience for us. We have to get nuclear right, and we have to embrace innovation.”

The decommissioning programme also requires new ways of thinking, noted Sellafield CTO Duncan Steel, who joined the nuclear group after 27 years in the aerospace industry. “I’ve found brilliant people and great ideas, but they are tethered in some way to the past 20 or 30 years of working,” he said.

“What we do is really changing at Sellafield, and how we’re going about it is by heavily investing in research and development, and promoting innovation with unique opportunities. But we can’t do it alone – we are supporting our supply chain, we are collaborating and building partnerships better.”

Sellafield is now working with partners to investigate remotely-operated drone technologies to remove humans from hazardous areas, “smart city” technologies to manage waste stores, and standardisation techniques from the oil & gas sector, Steel said.

Investing in innovation

Developing new capabilities to fill some of the key gaps in the current UK nuclear research landscape, and drawing on lessons and technologies from other sectors, is the aim of the Nuclear Innovation Programme.

Dr Fiona Rayment of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Office provided an update on the progress made by the programme, with more than £50 million of research investment already committed from a total pot of £180 million. More than 30 UK organisations have been involved in delivery, working with another 54 organisations from 16 countries.

Fiona Rayment

Picture: Dr Fiona Rayment

“What we’re very good at is doing a lot of the early stages of development, and then taking something that’s pretty mature and actually taking it to market,” Rayment noted. “The bit in the middle is difficult because it needs a significant investment. There’s a need to have a demonstration phase that takes some of these technologies forward.”

The conference featured updates from the researchers leading all the projects across the Nuclear Innovation Programme. The Nuclear AMRC, Wood, Frazer-Nash Consultancy and Cammell Laird are leading a series of projects in advanced manufacturing and materials, while NNL researchers are investigating a host of topics in advanced fuels and fuel recycling. Wood, Frazer-Nash and NNL are also leading projects in reactor design and engineering to support the development of new designs of advanced reactor.

Conference delegates also had the opportunity to visit the Nuclear AMRC’s research factory at the Advanced Manufacturing Park on the edge of Sheffield, to see some of the technologies in action.

Two projects led by the Nuclear AMRC are developing new tools and techniques which could help halve the production time and cost for pressure vessels and other large reactor components.

The Simple project (Single Manufacturing Platform Environment) aims to integrate a range of machining, fabrication and inspection operations onto a single manufacturing platform. Doing more on one machine will reduce the need to move large components between work areas, helping ensure accuracy and quality control throughout the manufacturing process. The 18-month first phase has involved Nuclear AMRC engineers working with a host of academic and industrial partners to develop intelligent welding and inspection tools.

The Inform project (Intelligent Fixtures for Optimised and Radical Manufacture) is meanwhile addressing a series of challenges in forming, machining and assembling large components. The Nuclear AMRC is working with industry and research partners to develop technologies such as advanced scanning and modelling techniques for large forgings, intelligent fixturing, and local-vacuum electron beam welding.