Interview with Dame Sue Ion

21 Oct 2011

Dame Sue Ion has been a prominent figure in the UK nuclear industry for decades, and is internationally recognised as an expert in nuclear fuels. Since 2010, she has chaired the EU Euratom Science and Technology Committee. She was made a Dame for her services to science and engineering. Dame Sue delivered a Public Evening Lecture on 20 October 2011 at SCI HQ.

Your lecture was called 'When the lights go out, will we care about carbon emissions?' In your view, what is the role of nuclear energy in the strategies to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050?
In the UK we don't have a formal commitment to have any particular energy technology in the generating mix; only aspirations but more importantly apparently legally binding carbon targets. For the past decade and a half we have adopted a 'market based approach' Personally, I think that's insane. Energy security is far too important to just leave to the market.

I was fortunate to lead group which drafted the Royal Academy of Engineering's study 'Generating the Future' last year. In this report we concluded that even with the maximum amount of renewable energy technologies we considered it feasible from the point of view of engineering practicality to deploy, in order to hit carbon targets the UK would need a 30% reduction in demand AND around 40 new nuclear power plants.

Nuclear energy is the only low carbon technology which can provide the amount of reliable base-load electricity needed by an industrialised 21st century society

Can biofuels and other (non-nuclear) energy sources provide the quality and quantity of reliable power the UK will need as the energy demands grow?
No, not in the quantities we need. Certainly they can make a significant and growing contribution but they cannot match the requirements we have for reliable electricity 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year. As an example the UK needed nearly 60GW of electricity at 1800hrs on 10 December 2010. It was dark, there was almost no wind and we were in the middle of our coldest winter for a few decades.


Offshore and Onshore wind?
Less than 0.3%. Nuclear on the other hand was working at full tilt and providing 15%. Almost all the rest was coal and gas. If we are to decarbonise our economy and shift large proportions of our transport and domestic sectors from oil and gas to electricity, then the problem is going to get more challenging, not easier, as electricity demand doubles or trebles.

The UK is decommissioning its early nuclear plants. What were the advantages and disadvantages of being an 'early adopter' of this technology?
Normally being an early adopter confers a competitive advantage. However the UK deployed types of nuclear power plants which were unique and not adopted in any quantities internationally. Most of the world adopted LWR technology (PWR or BWR) and so will have experience in decommissioning this type of technology many years before we need to decommission Sizewell B, currently our only LWR. We do have an advantage in decommissioning legacy facilities such as those at Dounreay and Sellafield and there are UK companies successfully building export business on the back of experience gained

The UK nuclear energy sector is experiencing a 'nuclear renaissance' at the moment. How has the landscape of the industry evolved? Are there significant changes within the industry, for example, as regards the supply chain?
Over the last 30 years the industry has seen a great deal of consolidation. The supply chain has also become much more global. The big players remaining in the world today offering international 'standard' designs are the US companies Westinghouse (now owned by Toshiba) and General Electric (now in partnership with Hitachi), and the French Co Areva.

Russia and Korea also have companies capable of winning export orders as evidenced by recent successes in China and the UAE respectively. Areva remains very much a traditional vertically integrated company whereas Westinghouse has a much broader approach to supply chain and technology localisation with a 'buy where we build' policy. Today's designs are designed for modular build and construction so there is much more factory build now than there was in the early days of the industry.

In terms of the human resources needed for this 'renaissance', how is the industry faring with regards its talent pool?
The industry has embarked on a major recruitment drive over a number of years now but has also recognised the importance of long term investment in skills in countries where they are active. In the UK for instance both EdF and Westinghouse have sponsored key academic posts and research programmes at top universities.

Nevertheless the industry recognises it is in competition for the best talent and so like many in the engineering sector is concerned about the numbers of domestic students studying the engineering and physical sciences disciplines. Talent is needed in the Utilities, the Reactor vendors, the supply chain which serves them and very importantly in the Office of Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency

The Japanese tsunami earlier this year raised concerns about the safety of nuclear energy. Did the nuclear energy sector learn anything from this experience?
The events of Fukushima caused the whole sector internationally to reassess their spent fuel management practices as well as the reactor technology. This is because the problems at Fukushima were caused by loss of power from and destruction of back up systems caused by the tsunami rather than the earthquake which triggered it and which the nuclear plants withstood.

Earlier movement of spent fuel from pools close to or integral with operating reactors to alternative purpose built facilities or cask storage may become more the norm in reactors built in the future. The UK's nuclear regulator, the ONR undertook a comprehensive review which reported its interim findings in early summer.

This indicated that while there were lessons to be learned with respect to robustness of back up systems, there were no grounds for closing our existing reactors or stopping the intentions to deploy new modern replacements. Most countries with existing nuclear power plants or intending to deploy new ones conducted similar reviews and came to similar conclusions. The notable exception was Germany, where the Merkel Government decided to phase out nuclear power plants from its energy mix by 2022.

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