© 2019 by Titans of Nuclear. Produced by the Energy Impact Center: www.energyimpactcenter.org

Dame Sue Ion

Former Technical Director
British Nuclear Fuels

Pursuit of Knowledge

Where did your career in nuclear begin?

At a young age, Dame Sue Ion became fascinated with how things worked and how things came to be. This initial spark led her to pursue a degree in material science and engineering at university. There, she elected to take a nuclear science module in her third year that would influence her career far beyond university. Sue pursued her Doctoral Degree, focusing her research specifically on Magnox fuel elements and . She describes that the Magnox, a reactor that uses natural uranium rather than enriched uranium, became the most prevalent reactor type throughout the United Kingdom; engineers built a fleet of these reactors that ran for about fifty years. Sue was later awarded the title of Dame as a result of her significant contributions to science and engineering in the United Kingdom.

Challenges & Developments

How did you gain the position that you did in British Nuclear Fuels?

Dame Sue Ion focused her research on clad characteristics that allowed her to understand how it performs as it is manufactured. The challenges that she faced with cladding made her well-equipped to secure a job at British Nuclear Fuels, where she began her career in industry. Here, she started off as a technical support officer and rose through the rankings. She began managing a group of technical employees, which led to her promotion to head of research and development for the fuel division of the company. As the head of research and development, Sue worked on dry processes and wet chemical processes; this included new manufacturing processes, improvements to cladding material, new profiles for cages that hold the fuel, and more modern processing tools and techniques. She later became the technical director for the whole company.

Waste Management & Decommissioning

How should we view waste management and decommissioning?

Dame Sue Ion dives in by explaining that prototypic plants were not designed for easy decommissioning, and waste was left in tanks to be dealt with later; this left issues for future generations. She argues that if plants were planned better at the outset, these issues would be easier to deal with. Sue recognizes that nowadays we can better plan ahead for safe storage of waste and decommissioning. However, a grand issue is how to safely change sludges, cladding, and fuel into a safe, storable form. Sue argues that we need regulation, but burying spent fuels deep beneath the ground might cause issues for future generations once other resources are depleted. In addition, creates the issue of where to store the spent nuclear fuel; the argument is largely based on emotion rather than understanding. She states that fuel recycling is questioned because of issues with reprocessing even though it is highly recyclable.

Repositories and Controversy

Why is nuclear sometimes treated differently than other energy sources?

How feasible is deep geological storage?

Dame Sue Ion states that deep geological storage could be very feasible from an engineering standpoint; however, the issue has spread to the public space. Sue notes that people tend to get caught up about nuclear waste, yet throw mercury and cadmium in batteries all the time. She highlights the fact that although many other energy sources are widely accepted, society is not as focused on their downfalls. Sue proposes that this paradox results from a general misunderstanding or irrational fear about nuclear energy. Her solution is to develop a better global understanding of nuclear energy to dispel these fears and bad reputations. Proper information must be provided to students, teachers, and families so that society is not driven to make decisions solely on emotion.

Modularity and Construction Costs

What are some of the issues around new construction of nuclear power?

Dame Sue Ion emphasizes the fact that it takes a lot of time, money, and effort to build large, complex reactors. The western world often fails to construct reactors efficiently and effectively. In order to resolve this issue, Sue believes that engineers must work more closely with the construction sector to explore modularity. She argues that small modular reactors would allow engineers to lower both the reactor’s size and construction time, which would, in turn, lower economic costs for production. She also emphasizes that government involvement might further lower the price of new reactors.

Current Work at BNFL

What are some of the things that Dame Sue Ion is focusing on now?

Currently, Dame Sue Ion is concerned with engaging vendors with constructors before beginning to build new plants. She discusses manufacturability of advanced nuclear reactors, such as high temperature reactors, and the technologies involved in making these advancements. She continues to research new materials, corrosion resistance, lifetime monitoring and measurement, and designs for easy decommissioning and waste management. She prioritizes modern designs that will allow for easy access and monitoring.

The Future of Nuclear

How does Dame Sue Ion see nuclear moving forward?

Looking forward, Dame Sue Ion continues to view nuclear as one of the most sustainable resources. Because of the light water reactor fleet that exists globally, the reliability of nuclear supplies is greater than it used to be. Sue argues that the continuous need for energy will allow nuclear to maintain its ground in the energy realm for centuries.