Ep 198: Reuben Holmes - Nuclear Plant Chemist, National Nuclear Laboratory
Becoming a nuclear plant chemist (1:54)
1:54-10:02 (Reuben explains how he first became interested in chemistry and how he came to enter the nuclear sector.)
Q. Did you grow up in the UK?
A. Reuben Holmes was born in Yorkshire County in the UK. Reuben studied medicinal chemistry in school and focused on novel organocatalysis during his master’s. He always thought he would enter the pharmaceuticals industry and worked at a pharmaceutical manufacturing site where he provided analytical support and quality assurance. Reuben did similar work for British Sugar. During his year at the sugar factory, Reuben was figuring out what he wanted to do, but nuclear was not yet on his mind. One day, Reuben’s mother told him that the Sellafield nuclear facility had a chemistry graduate program and applied just three days before the application closed. Reuben is now a Nuclear Plant Chemist at the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL).
10:02-18:27 (Reuben describes the UK’s Sellafield nuclear facility.)
Q. What is the Sellafield site?
A. Sellafield is equivalent to the US Hanford site, but is only about 1.5 to 2 square miles large. Sellafield was the start of the UK’s nuclear sector, becoming the world’s first commercial scale nuclear site. It is now the site of the processing plants which recycle nuclear fuel and where the nuclear waste is stored from all the nuclear facilities in the UK. Sellafield is coming to the end of its reprocessing life, meaning there is no fuel left to process and it does not have an operating nuclear power plant.
The UK used to recycle fuel but no longer does due to the decreased uranium prices. The Magnox plant reprocesses all of the fuel from the UK’s first generation fleet and will be decommissioned starting in about 2022. The Thorp reprocessing plant processes fuel from the UK’s second generation fleet and from overseas customers. Both plants were built in the 1970s and 1980s when uranium was more expensive than it is today. The siting process to store waste after Sellafield is decommissioned was launched in 2018. It creates a timeline to finding a community that is willing to host a waste facility. This process could take about 15 years because it will be designated on a volunteer basis.
The Sellafield Graduate Program (18:28)
18:28-29:51 (Reuben describes Sellafield’s graduate program and some of the projects he worked on during the program.)
Q. What was the graduate program like and what did you get to do?
A. Reuben enjoyed the Sellafield graduate program. The program is 2 years long with a cohort of about 25 people. It provides on the job experience and Reuben joined the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant technical team. This team focused on providing operational and technical support for the plant. Reuben found this quite different from sugar and pharmaceutical manufacturing because he was unable to see what was happening with his own eyes. In nuclear, he had to trust drawings of the systems to be true and could only understand what was happening from the chemistry data he was collecting.
One of Reuben’s roles was looking at trends and reviewing flowsheets to know how much material was present during each stage of reprocessing. Sellafield needed to maintain an understanding of how much material was extracted from the uranium during each stage of the process. The program gave Reuben the opportunity to learn these methodologies in a team alongside some of the people who had designed the plant.
Another aspect of the graduate program was focused on research and development. This allowed Reuben to join the NNL, enabling him to explore what a nuclear laboratory does to help the industry operate better. His first NNL project focused on a plant that was slowed by a faulty nozzle. Reuben and the team worked to create a better nozzle using a 3D printer. This showed Reuben how the NNL is linked to academia, allowing Reuben to draw from the academic literature and apply those learnings to an industry project. The team partnered with University College London to use the university’s bespoke x-ray imaging facility. This allowed the team to see inside the opaque test reactor to view the formation of the air bubbles from the nozzles, which could then be quantified to select the best new nozzle designs. This experience motivated Reuben to join the NNL as a plant chemist after the graduate program ended.
Developing the UK’s nuclear expertise (29:52)
29:52-34:55 (Reuben explains the NNL’s strategy and his own funded research project.)
Q. What kind of projects do you work on at the NNL?
A. The NNL operates on a commercial model and makes a profit. Because the NNL is owned by the UK government, this profit is then reinvested in NNL and is put towards training staff and developing the strategic nuclear expertise for the UK through funded research projects. Reuben leads a project focusing on hot water chemistry corrosion. Because the UK has many options for different kinds of reactors in the future, Reuben’s project focuses on developing expertise in corrosion of different designs. This includes pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors, but also small modular reactors, advanced designs and fusion.
Anti-corrosion chemistry (34:56)
34:56-43:17 (Reuben explains the various ways to minimize corrosion in reactors.)
Q. How do you study how to minimize corrosion?
A. Different reactor designs have different methods to decrease corrosion. For pressurized water reactors, hydrogen gas can be injected to absorb the corrosive molecules that exist in water. As the water flows through the reactor core, the water splits into hydrogen and oxygen, and the oxygen is often corrosive. The added hydrogen bonds with the oxygen to reform water. An alternative to this is to inject zinc into the reactor to modify the protective layer on the reactor’s surfaces, making them thicker and more resistant to corrosion.
Boiling water reactors use a different technique. Too much added hydrogen will increase the dose rates, creating a safety issue. Instead, platinum is injected into the reactor. The platinum forms nanoparticles that spread through the cooling system’s surfaces and act as a catalyst for the reformation of water from the hydrogen and oxygen molecules.
An advanced boiling water reactor is currently on hold to be built in Wales. The NNL has begun looking at the chemistry for this plant, including hydrogen, zinc and platinum approaches. This plant will be unique, because unlike other plants, it will use this anti-corrosion chemistry from the beginning of operation. The project was halted due to funding model issues between the UK and Japan, but fortunately, Reuben was able to work with the fusion lab to continue the research. His project now focuses on what a cooling circuit will look like for the Demo fusion facility. This gives NNL the opportunity to transfer their knowledge from fission reactors to fusion reactors, which are still being designed.
Corrosion in fusion reactors (43:18)
43:18-48:50 (Reuben explains the difference in corrosion between fusion and fission reactors.)
Q. How is fusion different from fission?
A. Fusion reactors have high-energy neutrons which fission reactors do not have. The high-energy neutrons impact the reactor’s materials by knocking atoms out of place, leading to cracking. Fusion reactors also have a magnetic field. The NNL is beginning to study if the magnetic field will weaken or strengthen the protective layer on the reactor surfaces. This can be studied in the lab using samples and a magnetic field in a high temperature water loop to create a mini fusion system. We have yet to see if a new type of anti-corrosion chemistry is needed to ensure the materials can withstand this environment.
The Young Generation Network (48:51)
48:51-56:26 (Reuben describes his role in the Young Generation Network.)
Q. What was your inspiration to start working with the Young Generation Network?
A. When Reuben joined the NNL, he received an email informing him about a Young Generation Network issue of the Nuclear Future Journal produced by the Nuclear Institute. The email asked if he had any projects that could be submitted to the journal as a paper. Reuben submitted the nozzle project and it was published six months later. Reuben was then invited to attend the Nuclear Institute’s annual dinner and was awarded the Pinkerton Prize for submitting the best journal paper of the year. This led to Reuben joining the editorial committee of the Nuclear Future Journal where he now coordinates input from the Young Generation Network.
Reuben saw this as an opportunity to put together a strategy to increase participation and engagement with the journal. He created surveys to share the Young Generations’ views on various topics within the nuclear industry. Reuben also works to celebrate success by writing Q&A articles focused on the young people behind the novel work that pushes the sector forwards. Reuben also aims to create effective communicators through his nuclear myth busting section. Finally, Reuben has created “Imagination.” This enables young industry workers to share their own ideas about the sector with the community.
Improving nuclear engagement (56:27)
56:27-1:04:17 (Reuben discusses the need for better public engagement in the nuclear industry and how the NNL is improving this.)
Q. What do you hope for the future of nuclear?
A. Reuben believes public engagement is one of the biggest challenges for the nuclear sector. Reuben leads the NNL’s public engagement program where they research the best ways to engage the public. The team sits down with members of the public to understand how they want to engage with the nuclear sector. This is then used to develop more effective communication and the methodologies to do this. The NNL has been working with Manchester University’s Nuclear and Social Science Research Network to bring social science thinking into nuclear practice. This not only builds trust but also creates local ownership of facilities. Reuben believes getting communication and engagement right is key to the future of the nuclear sector.
4 Bullet Points
(1) Why the UK’s Sellafield nuclear site will soon be decommissioned and how their graduate program moved Reuben into the nuclear sector
(2) How the Nuclear National Laboratory is researching the anti-corrosion chemistries of different nuclear reactor designs including fusion reactors
(3) Reuben’s involvement in the Young Generation Network and how he is working to share the next generation’s insights and accomplishments
(4) Researching how to engage the public better will improve nuclear acceptance and secure the future of the industry
(1) 42:46-43:15 “We’ve got a really nice program of work now looking at transferring that knowledge, that experience in water chemistry corrosion from fission plants, so boiling water reactors, pressurized water reactors, to these coolant circuits that they’re still designing for the Demo fusion plant and it’s so cool (...) there’s so much going on, there’s so many funky conditions going on in that fusion coolant circuit.”
(2) 1:01:20-1:01:50 “The aim is rather than that community feeling like the nuclear industry is doing this to us, putting this small modular reactor in our community, it’s more about the community shaping that small modular reactor, shaping how it looks, how it operates and everything around it so that it’s their facility, so that they have ownership of it and they’re proud of it.”