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House of Lords S&T Committee: Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee's report on nuclear research and development capabilities was published on 25 November 2011. You can download a PDF of the report below, and read the terms of reference for the inquiry at The Geological Society made a written submission.

House of Lords S&T Committee's report on nuclear R&D capabilities 

The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences. In preparing this submission, the Fellowship was consulted, and contributions were received from individuals in industry, academia and government bodies.

The implications of future scenarios

What are the research and capability requirements of nuclear energy policy options, roadmaps and scenarios up to 2050?

The Geological Society cannot comment on the full range of R&D required to support possible UK nuclear programme scenarios. Areas which will need to be informed by geoscience research include:
  • Radioactive waste disposal: whether or not new nuclear power stations are built, legacy and committed wastes must be safely disposed of.
    • The Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) programme will continue to be underpinned by research in a variety of geological, engineering and other specialisms as it progresses, with the construction and use of a geological repository for higher level wastes as its end point.
    • Many of the knowledge and research requirements for safe construction of a repository, emplacement of wastes, and their long term storage and monitoring, will depend on the choice of site. This will determine the geological setting for the repository (possibilities for the host rock formation include various types of igneous and metamorphic rocks; clay rocks or shales; and salt), which will fundamentally shape the geological constraints and uncertainties (and hence research challenges), from macro-scale rock mechanical considerations for the purposes of cavern construction, to groundwater movement and rock-water interaction, their role in the long-term degradation of engineered containment, and transport and retardation of radionuclides.
    • In later stages of the programme, there will also be a requirement for considerable site-specific R&D (in addition to generic considerations dependent on the geological setting), as the safety case for the repository is developed, and any particular challenges raised by the local geology are addressed.
    • The research programme will evolve in tandem with processes of site selection, repository design and safety case development, both informing these processes and being shaped by them.
    • An early stage of the application of existing research to specific geological settings was the application of ‘exclusion criteria’ to identify areas unsuitable for siting a repository in West Cumbria.
    • In considering long term scenarios, the Committee may also wish to consider contingency planning should the MRWS programme as presently constituted fail to reach a successful conclusion. Because of work done by the British Geological Survey (BGS) and others over many years, our regional understanding of the subsurface of the UK is unusually strong, including in areas not currently under consideration within MRWS (only West Cumbria, at present) which might constitute suitable host environments. While much site-specific research will need to be done, whatever location is agreed for a disposal facility, the high level of background knowledge of the subsurface, in combination with wide-ranging research into the geology of radioactive waste disposal, would be vital assets in the event that the present policy process fails. While there is widespread commitment to the MRWS programme in the geoscience community, contingency research needs should not be neglected in long-term scenario planning.
  • Uranium discovery and production: we offer no particular comment here, but see general observations below.
  • Natural hazards: while the UK does not experience major earthquakes, we are at risk from tsunamis triggered by events elsewhere. Rising sea level, land subsidence and coastal erosion are ongoing chronic processes with various causes and levels of risk and uncertainty. These may pose a significant threat to nuclear infrastructure including existing waste storage located near sea-level. Geoscientists can help identify the risks of natural hazards and the evolution of coastal terrain – others need to address their expected effects on new and existing nuclear plant, and questions of design to guard against these effects.
  • Other less obvious areas of geoscience research may be valuable – for example, volcanic ash dispersal modelling and observations are immediately relevant to the dispersal of radioactive particles from nuclear reactors (see, for example, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation international data centre’s work on the recent Fukushima release).
Our comments below refer particularly to these areas, and especially to radioactive waste disposal – the field in which the Geological Society has been most active in providing advice.

What consideration is the Government giving to the UK’s R&D requirements to meet the policy objectives for nuclear energy both in the near term and longer term (to 2050)? Does more need to be done?

It is for Government and not the Society to say what consideration is given to these requirements. R&D for radioactive waste management is necessarily interdisciplinary, and will need the input of a wide range of (natural and social) scientists and engineers in a variety of institutional settings. Geoscience is intrinsically an interdisciplinary field, and its practitioners are used to routinely working in this way. The impression of many in our community, however, is that while there a great deal of high quality, well targeted research is underway in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), BGS, academia, regulators and elsewhere, there is a lack of strategic oversight of these activities by government (see below).

What research capabilities and commitments are required now to meet these future nuclear energy policies?

Sustained investment in research and education of the next generation of scientists are essential to meeting future needs. As identified below, several areas of mainstream geoscience (including hydrogeology, geochemistry, petrology and various aspects of engineering geology) are among the primary skills needed for radioactive waste disposal – the nuclear industry and associated research community must be positioned to compete for the most talented graduates in these fields, and to offer attractive career paths.

The research base

Does the UK have adequate R&D capabilities, including infrastructure, to meet its current and future needs for a safe and secure supply of nuclear energy?

An important factor in building national capability and capacity in the radioactive waste community is ensuring continuity of research funding, and effective communication of long-term purpose from government and implementing bodies. Those seeking to build geoscientific research careers are only likely to choose to do so in the areas of nuclear site engineering, decommissioning and site restoration, and radioactive waste management if they see a realistic prospect of pursuing their research interests directed towards clear long-term goals, and of developing viable research groups and new professional networks. This is especially important given that many of those on whose expertise the MRWS programme currently depends are nearing the end of their careers. We understand that this concern is replicated in other parts of the nuclear industries sector

The MRWS programme will depend on the supply of a new generation of high-calibre geoscientists across a range of specialisms (including engineering geology, hydrogeology, geochemistry and environmental radiochemistry), both for its implementation and to sustain the research programme underpinning it. While there is some advantage in the commonalities between these requirements and those associated with other policy objectives (large scale development of Carbon Capture and Storage, water and mineral supply, evolving land use, etc) for ensuring sufficient supply of qualified personnel, this also means that the nuclear industry and its associated research community will have to compete to attract talented young scientists.

The Committee may wish to consider current and future availability and suitability of rock testing facilities in the UK in support of the MRWS programme, and the possible development of an underground rock laboratory (URL). Undoubtedly a wide range of properties of any host rock will need to be characterised and tested. These properties are complex and interdependent, but key considerations include:
  • Mechanical properties at macro scale, for the purpose of constructing large caverns to host a disposal facility.
  • Evaluation and confirmation of borehole testing technologies for determining rock properties.
  • Mechanical and petrophysical properties at smaller scale, to ensure the integrity of a multi-barrier engineered facility.
  • Geochemical properties and fluid-rock interactions, to maximise long-term retardation of radionuclides.
  • Scaling up of laboratory bench tests to repository scale.
  • Technological development and acquisition of directly relevant experimental skills.
  • Some in the geoscience community have expressed concern over the loss of (laboratory scale) rock testing facilities in universities (notably at Imperial College and University College London). It is possible that existing underground spaces analogous to a repository could be used to test macro-engineering properties, such as the underground cavern at the Cruachan hydroelectric power plant – though this is hosted in granitoid rock, and any assumption about the eventual host rock for a UK geological repository would be premature at this point. (The UK is not in the position yet to develop a URL relevant to its needs, as has happened in France, Switzerland and Nordic countries, where clays and granitoid rocks respectively have been identified as the host geological environments for radioactive waste disposal.) In assessing future UK rock testing needs, it will be necessary to consider the full range of properties to be tested, the host geology, and the need for laboratory results to be scaled up for implementation in a real repository environment.

Are there sufficient opportunities and avenues to conduct translational nuclear research in the UK to develop future technologies? Which bodies should be funding this work?

Some of our members have observed that there does not appear to be the focus on large scale research that there was historically at Sellafield, Dounreay, Harwell, Winfrith and elsewhere.

Competing in the global market

What are the research areas in which the UK is recognised internationally as having strengths?

The subsurface of the UK is generally well explored and characterised compared with that of other countries, and the expertise of the BGS, particularly in UK regional geology, constitutes a highly valuable element of national capability for radioactive waste management. Given the specificity of much of the relevant geology to the host environment (and even the particular site), the potential to export this direct knowledge is somewhat limited. Nonetheless, there are transferable skills and generic research outputs. The potential for international learning regarding radioactive waste disposal is well recognised, and British scientists are active in international networks. More broadly, the UK also has a strong track record in many of the geoscientific disciplines which inform radioactive waste management. However, the pause in activity over the last 10-15 years means that less research has been focused on the specific geoscience issues that support confidence in long-term safety of nuclear waste management and disposal.

What are the costs and benefits to the UK of a more or less active R&D capability within the country?

Formal cost-benefit analysis of R&D activity is outside our area of expertise. However, we note the value of maintaining and building national capability in several respects:
  • Energy security is likely to be reduced if we are completely dependent on foreign R&D capability.
  • Active domestic capability at or near to the cutting edge is vital in order to benefit fully from international collaboration – the importance of developing absorptive capacity at a national (as well as institutional) level is well documented, so importing overseas knowledge and expertise cannot be seen as a ‘zero sum gain’ alternative to nurturing UK capabilities.
  • While the UK radioactive waste disposal programme is some way behind that in other countries, its wider strength in relevant geoscience specialisms positions it well to take on an internationally leading role in the coming decades, if research and education are supported by sustained funding.
  • Regarding radioactive waste disposal, much of the research needed at later stages in the MRWS programme will be specific to the geology of the site selected. International collaboration and learning will continue to be important, but solutions from one country can rarely be simply imported and applied directly in another setting. There is also considerable international variation in waste inventories, waste packages and wasteforms (e.g. different encapsulation and immobilisation processes including vitrification and grouting), and hence in their expected interactions with the geosphere. The diverse and volumetrically large UK intermediate-level waste inventory, arising in part from our pioneering role in nuclear power generation and also from inconsistent management and storage of wastes in past decades, pose particular challenges for the MRWS programme – as does the proposed co-located disposal of high-level and intermediate-level wastes.

Strategic oversight and co-ordination

Is there sufficient co-ordination between the bodies involved in nuclear research and, if not, how should it be improved? Who has oversight of the whole nuclear R&D landscape, including international activities?

As noted above, much high quality research is going on across various institutional settings, albeit with some shortcomings in terms of strategic coordination and focus.

Many of those carrying out such research recognise the need to locate their work in the broader national context. The R&D remit of the NDA’s Radioactive Waste Management Directorate is needs driven, and is bound to be specifically targeted to support their implementation responsibilities within MRWS. Nonetheless, the NDA is working closely with learned societies and others to set their work and that of their contractors alongside the work of other researchers. A major learned society-led conference in October 2011, and a subsequent publication, will present the present ‘state of the art’ of radioactive waste management research in the UK, and it is hoped that this will be the first in a series of such projects. The learned societies have also taken it upon themselves to help to encourage a new generation of radioactive waste management researchers, for instance through a joint Mineralogical Society and Geological Society conference in September 2010, which addressed both future research challenges and research career paths.

Despite these good intentions, there is no national research programme to support radioactive waste management. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the NDA, learned societies, BGS and others to work together in communicating with the science and engineering community, there is no overall agenda of research needs from government; no unified attempt to communicate the range of opportunities for researchers to secure funding and develop careers in this vital area of national need (across academia, industry, implementing bodies and regulators); and no allocation of research responsibilities falling to the Research Councils (individually or collectively) complementing the NDA’s needs driven programme. This lack of direction is deleterious to the development of a cohesive research community, and to the delivery of science underpinning management of the UK’s radioactive waste.

Government may be reluctant in particular to interfere in Research Councils’ decision making about research funding allocations. While respect for academic independence is essential, in the context both of delivering responsive-mode funding and of Research Councils’ developing and implementing their own strategic objectives, government should be careful that this does not become an excuse to abdicate responsibility where a more directive approach to priority setting is needed, in support of meeting national needs. This is a particular danger in multi-disciplinary areas such as radioactive waste management, responsibility for which is split across more than one Research Council (principally NERC and EPSRC).

The research needed to underpin regulatory activities, e.g. of the Environment Agency, should also be considered. There is much common purpose, but there are also specific requirements for example in terms of process uncertainties and probabilistic analyses of scenarios.

There is a strong case for a single body to be charged with identifying and communicating research needs, gaps, and opportunities, recognising that the commissioning, funding and delivery of this research falls to a wide variety of organisations. This need not (indeed, it should not) interfere with the academic independence of the Research Councils, or the remit of any other body. Such an overseeing role does not appear to us to fall naturally to any existing institution as presently constituted. We would be pleased to discuss further how this objective might be achieved.

What role should the Government play in identifying gaps in research, providing oversight of the whole landscape and encouraging co-ordination between funders and deliverers? Are they fulfilling that role? Should more be done?

See comments above. In addition to taking a more active role in overseeing the activities and priorities of Research Councils, government could support the development of nuclear R&D capability in industry, in particular by identifying where expertise is required to meet national requirements, by communicating these needs clearly, by incentivising commercial investment (for instance through fund matching, tax breaks, and development of technology clusters in regions where the nuclear industry is strong).

International and European research activities and comparisons

Should the UK be involved in international and European research activities on nuclear? If so, how and what are the benefits and costs of doing so?

Regarding radioactive waste management, the UK is involved in such collaborative activities, and derives considerable benefit. (Note the need identified above for sustaining national capability in order to take part effectively and reap these benefits). More effective communication and coordination of activities by government would help to ensure that the UK takes best advantage of these opportunities. Funding for UK participation in international projects is often at the discretion of bodies with their own strategic objectives – again, this may warrant some central oversight.

The EU’s Euratom ‘Framework’ RTD programme has been the driver for much collaborative research and technological development in recent years. At present, the future of the Euratom programme and whether it will translate to UK’s research needs are rather unclear.

The benefits of involvement in collaborative international, especially European, research activities are summed up in the growth of a scientific consensus about long-term safety of geological disposal. The background to this consensus is the dissemination of peer-reviewed publications on technologies and understanding of safety-relevant geosphere processes. The leading national programmes are noteworthy for their success in this way and it is reasonable to suppose that this will be a major part of maintaining the consensus in the UK scientific community.

What can the UK learn from how other countries presently organise and deliver R&D provision for nuclear? To what extent are other countries increasing or decreasing their research capacity in order to deliver future nuclear policies?

No comment.

Roles and responsibilities

Are the bodies involved in funding research and setting research agendas adequately fulfilling their roles and responsibilities? Should anything change?

See comments below, and responses to other questions.

In particular:
  1. What is the role of the Research Council’s cross-council Energy Programme? Is it giving sufficient attention to the UK’s current and future nuclear energy research requirements?

    The programme is not particularly visible to the radioactive waste research community. It seems to be heavily EPSRC-led, and radioactive waste management does not appear to be a high priority for NERC in its role as a research funding body, although some aspects of the science fall clearly within its remit. (We note that radioactive waste management is a clear priority and a strong area of expertise for BGS, which constitutes a vital element of national capability in this regard – NERC being the parent body of BGS).
  2. Is the National Nuclear Laboratory fulfilling its R&D remit appropriately? Can it deliver the required research to support the UK’s future nuclear energy policies? How does it compare to NNL’s in other countries?

    No comment
  3. Is the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s R&D remit still appropriate, given the UK’s current and potential future nuclear policies?

    The Geological Society, in common with a number of other learned societies, has worked closely with the NDA in developing and communicating its R&D strategy, among other aspects of its work, and as noted above, this welcome cooperation continues. The limitation of its scope to needs-driven R&D in support of the NDA’s role in implementing the MRWS is appropriate. Both the NDA and the learned societies with which they work recognise the need to locate this research in a broader research agenda across academia, industry and government, including fundamental research, and applied research which falls outside the MRWS programme.

    Research packages commissioned by the NDA have usually been short term (typically one year). This mode of funding is not easily compatible with practices in academia.

Closing comments

We would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts.