Paul Howarth

Ep 71: Paul Howarth - Chief Executive Officer, National Nuclear Laboratory - UK
00:00 / 01:04


Q1 - History of Nuclear in Manchester

Bret Kugelmass: What is the National Nuclear Laboratory?

Paul Howarth: The National Nuclear Laboratory is owned by the U.K. Government and what remains is the U.K.’s strategic nuclear technical capability that resides within the public sector. U.K.’s nuclear industry went through significant change about ten years ago that led to the establishment of the laboratory, which now operates with about 1,000 people. The lab does not receive any grants directly from the government, but is funded purely from the work they do in the commercial sector. Generated profit is recycled back into long term skills research and development for the future of U.K.’s nuclear program. Paul Howarth grew up just South of Manchester and attended school there. The Industrial Revolution started in Manchester and is home to the original steam engine. Through the cotton trade, Manchester also had strong ties with the U.S. and the Caribbean, but took a strong stance to abolish slavery taking place. Steam power generation was started for the mills for the cotton industry. Rutherford also split the atom in Manchester in the 1900’s, and there are more than ten nuclear Nobel prizes that have been won in Manchester. Because of the richness that Manchester got through the Industrial Revolution, the importance of universities was recognized, leading to a world leading university. In the early days of nuclear, Cambridge University set up the Cavendish Laboratory and Manchester wanted to rival it with world class laboratories that would attract world class people.

Q2 - Advanced Nuclear Technology

Bret Kugelmass: What sent you down the path to astrophysics?

Paul Howarth: Paul Howarth was attracted to astrophysics from the point of view of how to explain the universe from the point of view of mathematics. After completing those studies, Howarth felt a drive to do something which benefited people and was important to a lot of people. He got involved in nuclear fusion technology, completing his PhD on the topic while in Oxford at the Joint European Torus project. During Howarth’s first week, the project was doing the world’s first deuterium tritium experiment. His PhD was based on nuclear technologies and how to measure what is coming off the plasma. Paul Howarth was approached by British Nuclear Fuels (BNF) and invited him to become part of their new company at Sellafield. While Howarth was at Sellafield, he was invited to work on technology transfers in plasma in Japan. Howarth knew BNF’s biggest customer is Japan and Sellafield used to reprocess nuclear fuel for the Japanese utilities. Howarth originally spent 12 months in Japan, but extended his stay to about two and a half years, spent at different locations such as Fukuoka on the semiconductor industry at the Tokaimura nuclear reprocessing plants. Japan has no indigineous oil and gas and knew they had to look at nuclear technology. If not for Fukushima, Japan may have been wedded to a closed fuel cycle strategy. Paul Howarth returned to the U.K. working for British Nuclear Fuels to look at advanced technologies. Howarth also spent some time running operations at Berkeley Power Station. In 2003, Howarth joined a small group in BNF that was working to build the case for new nuclear, mainly engaging with government to get them to recognize the importance of a new nuclear build program.

Q3 - Nuclear Energy Policy in the U.K.

Bret Kugelmass: Tell me about U.K. energy policy.

Paul Howarth: In 2002, the U.K. published a white paper committing to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions through renewable technology. One chapter was written for nuclear, but was taken out at the last minute. At the time, British Energy, which ran the U.K. reactors before it was EDF Energy, bombed and the business model failed. The government had to bring the reactors back into government ownership. This failure had nothing to do with the nuclear fleet, but instead that the company hedged wrongly and sold electricity wholesale as opposed to retail. Paul Howarth, with his small team at British Nuclear Fuels, started working with government to try and build the case for nuclear by addressing myths about safety and reliability. This group worked with industry, the general public, and the House of Lords. When Putin cut the gas supplies to Ukraine, the U.K. government realized energy was not a pure commodity and energy security is important. This changed the U.K. government’s perspective on nuclear. One mistake made in the past was for Sizewell B, which went through a local planning inquiry to deconstruct the technology and make engineering decisions. Howarth’s group told the U.K. government that clarity on the waste management policy was needed, as well as certainty of the planning process, which led to the generic design assessment process, and certainty over the contracts for electricity. The public was not given a choice to say no to nuclear without providing an alternative for meeting carbon goals. There was recognition of the importance of nuclear during this consultation and the public wanted to proceed with the nuclear projects.

Q4 - Rebuilding U.K.’s Nuclear Programs

Bret Kugelmass: Tell me about setting boundaries between the experts and the public.

Paul Howarth: After the consultation was launched, Paul Howarth was concerned with U.K.’s strategic technical capability. The government said they would support nuclear, but would not subsidize the technology, which led to a lack of investment in nuclear R&D and nuclear skills. Howarth and his group worked with Manchester University, at a time in which nuclear is rock bottom, to build up technical skill. Birmingham University had a well-known master’s program in physics and technology of nuclear reactors, but at one point only had five individuals in the program. Afraid that the U.K. would lose its nuclear capability, Howarth and a colleague worked with BNFL to set up the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. The nuclear industry has a lot of bright individuals, but also a lot of people with passion. Nuclear power is an energy source that is going to support the future of the planet.

Q5 - National Nuclear Laboratory

Bret Kugelmass: How did you join the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL)?

Paul Howarth: When the nuclear industry was broken up, the U.K. had BNFL’s science and technology division. A national laboratory was set up in a GOCO contract, modeled after the national labs in the U.S. A consortium was formed between Batelle and Serco and won the bid for the lab, where Paul Howarth became part of the management team. In 2011, Howarth took over as chief executive of the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). In the U.S., labs are funded by the government. In the U.K., the lab is commercially funded. The NNL delivers to time cost of quality work for their customers, incentivizing the workforce to bring in more profit which goes back into technical skills training and development. Paul Howarth worked with Battelle and collaborated closely with the labs in the U.S. Howarth’s position at the national lab puts him in a position between industry and academia, allowing him to understand the differences between the cultures of the different organizations. Because of Brexit, the government has been looking at its industrial strategy and which are big enough to provide a comfort blanket, one of which is nuclear. Nuclear is going to underpin the economy, energy, defense, and regional economy. The cost of nuclear must go down by working towards fleet build. Innovation will play its part and help with future reactor systems, but the here and now must be building these reactors with confidence.

Q6 - Innovations in the Nuclear Sector

Bret Kugelmass: What are some innovations needed in nuclear?

Paul Howarth: Paul Howarth does not see engagement between nuclear and other industries to push innovation in finance, project management, safety cases, and other areas. The U.K. has the innovation association for nuclear reactors, but innovation is also needed to deliver waste management and clean up the related challenges. Nuclear in the U.K. has always had a close association with its origin in a military program, which the opponents of nuclear turn to. Within the general public of the U.K., safety is not a concern for nuclear. The challenge with the general public is the expense and the waste. During the oil crisis of the 60’s and 70’s, the vendors of the reactor systems looked at advanced technology and recognized they need to get nuclear efficient, increasing the size of the reactors. However, this increases the capital cost and construction schedule, adding that cost back in. Gas-fired and fossil fuel plants have an unknown fuel cost at the point of construction. Nuclear, however, has a massive up front capital cost, but a very predictable and insignificant fuel cost for the next fifty years. If not many reactors are built, the weighted average cost of capital goes up and dominates the levelized cost of electricity.

Q7 - Energy Mix Model

Bret Kugelmass: Why not shrink the reactor size?

Paul Howarth: If more nuclear reactors are built, confidence in the build will increase and novel and innovative manufacturing techniques can be put into practice. Risk is decreased when confidence is increased. Building lots of reactors reduces the levelized cost of electricity generation, which allows you to build more reactors. The U.K. has a program of generation III reactors, which allows the government to look at novel technology and address the nuclear economic dilemma. Nuclear is important to Paul Howarth. At one meeting, the chief government scientist was done to look at the whole energy ecosystem. The energy challenge is so big that we need every tool in the toolbox, including renewables. A user-friendly calculator model for the U.K. general public provides a tool to play with the energy mix to solve the energy problem virtually. If the model is run without nukes and a goal of hitting 80% reduction in CO2 emissions and other factors, the model would not close and could not get the goal. After ramping up renewables and biomass, the slider moved on the model, but the model still struggled. After ramping up wave and tidal, the model still wouldn’t close. Wind power and wind farms were added, domestic heating was decreased in the winter to 12 degrees, and they couldn’t get the model close. Once they ran the nukes, the model closes. The U.K. grid is around 80 GW in size. Because the transportation sector must be electrified, a grid four times the size of the current is needed, approximately 300 GW. The model settled at a point which was 100 GW nuclear, 100 GW renewables, and 100 GW fossil fuels with sequestration. However, the U.K. currently only has around 5 GW of renewable energy, but with load factors, it is currently equivalent to about 1 GW. Also, nobody has sequestered any CO2 from any fossil fuel plant successfully at a large industrial scale. When Paul Howarth looks within the nuclear industry, he considers the meeting reviewing the energy model and feels confidence in what he is doing with nuclear.

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