Dec 20, 2019

Ep 250: Andrew Sherry - Chief Scientist, National Nuclear Laboratory

Chief Scientist
National Nuclear Laboratory
Play audio

Show notes

The Past and Present Plans for Nuclear in the UK (0:34)
0:34-8:23 (Andrew Sherry and Bret Kugelmass discuss the history of nuclear technology research and support in the UK starting with a three phase plan using magnox power stations and advanced gas-cooled reactors through the “dash for gas” in the 1980s and through to today’s Nuclear Innovation Program.)

Q. I would love to learn about your origin story in the nuclear sector.
A. (0:37) Andrew Sherry, currently the Chief Scientist at the National Nuclear Laboratory in the UK, fell into the nuclear sector after seizing the first job opportunity offered to him after his studies, one at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, in 1987. Prior to that, he studied metallurgy, the study of metals and alloys, and completed a PhD on aerospace metals, specifically single crystal turbine blades, both at the University of Manchester. He says the nuclear industry could learn a lot from the aerospace sector.

When Andrew was at the UKAEA in the 1980’s, the research organization was responsible for developing the UK’s future reactor systems. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority operated prototype reactors like sodium-cooled fast reactors and high temperature gas-cooled reactors among others. Andrew was in the materials/engineering/metallurgy department working on pressure vessel steels, in particular the pressure vessel that is now used in Sizewell B, the first pressurized water reactor used in the UK.

Bret discusses how the UK has a special nuclear history, born at the same time the U.S. nuclear history was, from developing intellectual nuclear capability and the bomb together during that time period. Then, the UK launched its own effort in commercial nuclear application using all of these different types of reactors just like the US.

Andrew thinks that the United Kingdom would like to design a new type of reactor if they could. Throughout the history of nuclear power in the UK, they’ve tried a variety of different reactor systems, resulting substantially in gas-cooled reactor technologies because they were more efficient. He explains that magnox reactors weren’t only used in the UK and were used more globally in the early stages of nuclear. While the rest of the world moved towards light water reactor technology, the United Kingdom held on to this magnox reactor technology. He cites Canada as an exception with their CANDU system.

The UK eventually landed on the high temperature gas-cooled reactor technology in its first two phases of nuclear development. Andrew explains that phase three was going to be pressurized water reactors.

Andrew explains that the cabinet office was having discussions in the late 50’s and 60’s around how to deliver the electricity that the United Kingdom needed. The plan even went as far as to define how many gigawatts of nuclear electricity they would want to generate during the 1960s using magnox power stations. In phase two, the UK shifted to advanced gas-cooled reactors and experimented with higher temperatures and different fuels and materials.

The next phase in the plan was going to be a fleet of pressurized water reactors, the first of which was at Sizewell B. Sizewell B became the only one to be built because of the “dash for gas” and influences of North Sea Gas. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the United Kingdom lost interest in building nuclear power stations and conducting research to advance nuclear power systems.

Andrew explains that he joined the organization when they already were pioneering research, testing reactors, using prototypes and had many sites around the country. Shortly after, the nuclear vision changed for the country making the UKAEA obsolete. There was less and less R&D and facilities closed throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s.

Andrew explains that it wasn’t until the 2005-2010 period in the UK when people started to believe nuclear power was really important to the future of the country. In order to have a nuclear power program, you have to think about future research for next generation reactors and fuels. The tide started to turn. People like the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor at the time, John Beddington, and others, began to map out a research portfolio for the 21st century.

Andrew explains that the United Kingdom is now essentially about three years into the first phase of a new nuclear R&D program called the Nuclear Innovation Program.

Andrew explains that the program focuses on the key technologies and options for the future of the UK nuclear sector. It covers short-term factors like advanced manufacturing, covers medium-term factors like advanced fuel technology, particularly around accident tolerant fuel, and covers future reactor technologies and fuel cycles. It covers near-term building today’s power stations, like at Hinkley Point C, the potential for small modular reactors, and on to sodium-cooled fast reactors and high temperature gas-cooled reactors. The program is about asking “what do we need to do now to maintain those possibilities for the future?”

Net Zero Carbon Emissions and Nuclear Affordability (8:23)
8:23-14:51 (The UK is the first country to agree to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Andrew believes nuclear could be more affordable using a fleet approach, advanced manufacturing, modular construction and learning from building experience.)

Q: If you had a magic wand, where would you be investing time and effort to address the challenges that the nuclear industry faces?
A: (8:42) Andrew and Bret agree that it comes back to economics. Different countries have different energy policies, but the UK is the first country to sign up to a “zero target” or net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Andrew explains that the UK is coming up towards a general election and different parties have different views on how aggressively to drive the net zero agenda, but the net zero target for 2050 is written in UK law either way. The UK will need to find a way to get there, but will need to get there in a way that is affordable.

Andrew believes that this is where nuclear faces a challenge. He cites the model produced by the Committee on Climate Change published in May 2019 which claims that net zero is possible and affordable. It said that, in order to maximize electricity use, not just in the way it is used today but in transport, heat, and more, the country will need twice as much electricity we have today. There are three ways to deliver that electricity currently. One is renewables, another is gas technologies with carbon-capturing storage, and the third is nuclear.

Andrew explains that renewables, particularly off-shore wind, has really driven an aggressive cost-reduction program over the last few years. Andrew demonstrates this by comparing offshore wind costs with costs from Hinkley Point C. 5 years ago, off-shore wind cost about 150 pounds per megawatt hour. Hinkley Point C with one PWR, which will come onstream in 2025, costs 92.5 pounds per megawatt hour at a fixed rate for the next 30 years. The latest auction in off-shore wind, which will come onstream in 2025 also, is now 39.5 pounds per megawatt hour, less than half the cost of nuclear. They’ve driven this aggressive cost reduction program by learning by building and by increasing the scale of wind turbines.

Bret explains that wind is an amazing example to look towards in terms of showing how manufacturing at scale could reduce your capital cost, but points out that any power source has a problem when it starts to saturate the grid as well.

Andrew agrees. He explains a model that the Committee on Climate Change have proposed for 2x the electricity by 2050 which includes 60% of the electricity coming from renewables, gas with carbon capturing storage, and a little bit of nuclear (but the Committee on Climate Change actually suggests less nuclear than we have today) with some overlap to balance that intermittency.

Andrew believes this is a risky strategy because gas with carbon capturing storage has not been demonstrated affordably at scale. He believes that half of the balance needed should be nuclear power to mitigate risk. Andrew explains that this requires a nuclear power to take a different approach in the UK so that it can be more affordable.

Andrew believes that many models take a conservative approach towards nuclear because they use today’s current price. He thinks the UK can learn from some of the studies that have been done on how to drive out costs on nuclear projects. For example, Andrew has seen that taking a fleet approach, learning from building experience, and getting into advanced manufacturing and modular construction can start to see the cost of nuclear reduce. He states that the largest part of the cost of nuclear today is actually the cost of the capital. Andrew explains that after cost reduction is demonstrated in one plant, the cost of capital and risk in investing in a second plant is reduced. He provides the example of EDF Energy’s aggressive targets for if they built the same plant they’re building at Hinkley Point C at Sizemore C the cost will be substantially lower. The fleet build approach is absolutely crucial for the UK.

6 Ways to Promote Nuclear Innovation and Affordability (14:51)
14:51-36:16 (Andrew shares six key ways to promote nuclear innovation and affordability after a cross-sector innovation roundtable including technology, leadership, collaboration, risk, financing, and regulation).

Q: And what’s the role that NNL plays in how to make nuclear affordable?
A: (15:08) When Andrew joined UKAEA in 1987, it was a national laboratory funded by the government, but he saw it go through an interesting transition towards commercialism. It had to learn how much things cost. It had to compete for work. The NNL now operates commercially, but doesn’t operate like a purely commercial organization because it has to think about the UK not just itself. It bids for work, works with regulators, works with industry and works internationally, but the NNL also works with government to provide the best advice as possible. The NNL separates the commercial business and the government consultation to avoid conflict.

Andrew likes to use the phrase “doing both.” The NNL is both a commercial organization and a national laboratory. Any profits made go back into science and technology and research for the future. Increasingly, because the UK government has increased funding for long-term research in nuclear, the NNL is doing substantial research around nuclear innovation around fuels and fuel cycle programs.

Bret wants to discuss priorities on innovation. We’re both on the same page about economics, economics, economics. If climate has a future, it needs nuclear. If nuclear has a future, it needs to reduce costs. What are the areas to prioritize to reduce costs?

The NNL have created a program around thought leadership in this space because Andrew believes that nuclear power cannot just carry on as is or there simply won’t be more nuclear power stations in the UK. They brought together a whole range of sectors to talk about innovation at the Royal Academy of Engineering. In addition to technical leaders in nuclear, Andrew brought together technical leaders from other industries like shipbuilding, space, medical and digital. He encouraged those representatives to disrupt the thinking of the nuclear industry. The sector leaders gave talks on why they innovate, how they innovate and what the benefit of innovation is. The group learned about blockchain technology and food technology, miniaturization of satellites, advanced materials, modular construction in shipbuilding, and the transformation of the construction sector.

There were six areas to focus to drive out cost coming out of the innovation roundtable. The first one was advanced technology which includes manufacturing, industry 4.0, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Andrew emphasizes that technology is only one of the six takeaways though. The second is leadership and culture. Andrew quotes Bill Macwood saying “if you brought back someone who worked in 1978 to an operating nuclear plant, they could pretty much pick up where they left off.” Andrew urges that, for a high-tech industry, that is unacceptable. Andrew quotes another Bill, Bill Gates saying that the great thing about nuclear is that nuclear hasn’t innovated, and now, it’s ripe to do so. Andrew calls this a real wake up call. He describes how many people who have worked in the nuclear industry have worked in it for many, many years and are resistant to change. It’s a cultural issue. Andrew says it comes down to leadership, commitment and what he calls a “relentless nudge” in one direction.

There are many models for developing leadership and culture. Andrew recommends a book called Turning the Ship Around by David Marquet, a US submarine captain who was put in charge of a submarine he was unfamiliar with. He realized that if he was going to change the performance of that boat, it was down to the people who worked for him. If he could empower them and become leaders themselves, he could do it. Andrew believes that the same principles apply for the nuclear sector and is applying them at NNL.

He explains that over time any industry can become complicated, cumbersome, and bureaucratic which adds time and cost. At NNL, they are currently running an experiment in a laboratory to empower people to problem solve for better efficiency and less waste without reducing standards right now. He calls for a change of culture from compliance to ownership.

Andrew’s third area of focus out of the innovation roundtable was around collaboration. As a nuclear sector, there is often collaboration with supply chains but rarely outside of the sector. Andrew encourages the sector to take technology that has been proven and bring it into nuclear so that the nuclear industry doesn’t have to invent everything itself.

The fourth area of focus to come out of the innovation roundtable is around and program management. How do we manage risk and what is our risk appetite in the nuclear sector? How can we do that differently? Andrew gives the example of regulation and innovation. How can we still demonstrate a target for safety but do it in a much simpler way? How do we simplify it and therefore improve it?

People point to the regulator and say “will they allow this?” but Andrew believes that the more important question is if industry will adopt it, because the industry has to do all of the work and holds the ownership.

Bret asks a provocative question about why - after Fukushima when the worst possible scenario happened and still not enough radiation was released into the air to hurt anyone - why wasn’t that brought up to challenge the regulator?

Andrew chocks it up to different countries and cultures having different approaches. The regulator in one sense is there to protect the public. They act on that in any industry. They are independent and trusted by the public. They are open and transparent. But with the nuclear industry, the public has a particular perception. NNL has done a lot of work in asking how to talk about the risk associated with nuclear power stations or radioactive waste with the public who might need nuclear energy one day.

(29:54) I know this isn’t going to sound nice, but is it possible that the very act of talking about risk makes them more afraid?
(30:01) Andrew thinks Bret is probably right. Airlines don’t talk about what happens when you crash, but interestingly the car industry does use safety as a selling feature.

(30:23) The next area of focus for the NNL is commercial models of financing. How do we finance these big long-term build programs in a different way. As part of the workshop, the NNL did a workshop with bankers and investors and pension holders. Andrew tells a story of the first question he was asked, the question of “why are we even here?” Then, the participants said “there are other things we can invest in that will give greater returns with less risk faster, but these small modular reactors. We like the sound of that.” Andrew emphasizes that innovation in financing is not just the financing model but what is being financed.

(32:03) The sixth and last area of focus for cost-saving innovation is enabling regulation. The regulator is an enabler of all of the other things spoken about already and has to be involved. The NNL brought together regulators from other sectors to learn how they might apply some principles from other sectors. One of the principles Andrew noticed was a duty for growth. The regulator isn’t there to shut industry down but to enable it in a safe and secure way. Bret and Andrew discuss how the US regulatory culture is one that doesn’t encourage economic growth but conservative decision-making. Andrew explains that the UK regulatory system is different because it doesn’t write the rule for industry to follow but simply writes principles. Another principle of regulators is one of FAIR which stands for facilitate, advise, influence, and regulate.

Implementing Change in the Nuclear Sector (36:16)
(36:16-43:55) How to implement innovation from other sectors and what the nuclear industry can learn from the US space industry and Elon Musk

Q: Now we’re actually wondering how we implement these things in practice.
A: (36:20) It’s not just a blueprint. If we’re going to change the way nuclear energy delivers low-carbon electricity or heat or hydrogen into the economy, these issues need to be addressed. Andrew says that at the moment there is a massive opportunity in the UK, but nuclear is just too expensive.

Andrew does see a higher level of competition in other sectors, particularly in the space sector. He encourages Bret to look at the space sector in the US where you have a space industry in NASA that has become bureaucratic and slow. Then, in comes disruptors who believe passionately in the future of space and commit large sums of personal wealth to deliver a new space industry in a new way. Bret argues that the nuclear sector isn’t allowed to test until failure like Elon Musk does in the space sector, even though he believes there is no good reason why we shouldn’t. Andrew reiterates that the industry sector does have a principle to innovate in a safe space. He continues saying that many of the physical tests have already been done. He encourages mining the history of what has already been tested in the past.

Andrew looks at the UK and it’s 10 gigawatts of nuclear power today. He says that in 10 years they will hardly have any because it will all be shut down. We talk of 50 gigawatts by 2050 in three streams of nuclear technology, like large nuclear like Hinkley Point C with a fleet approach, small modular reactors with a massive export opportunity, and advanced reactor technology. The fourth he would throw in is fusion, despite massive engineering challenges. He ends by saying that nuclear simultaneously needs to be concerned with the legacy and environmental consequences of these streams.

Sign up for our newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.