Paul Nevitt

Director of Science and Technology

National Nuclear Laboratory

August 3, 2021

Placeholder.png
Ep 326: Paul Nevitt - Director of Science and Technology, National Nuclear Laboratory
00:00 / 01:04
Play audio:

Shownotes

Bret Kugelmass
We are here today on Titans of Nuclear with Paul Nevitt, who is the upcoming Science and Technology Director of the National Nuclear Laboratory in the United Kingdom. Paul, welcome to Titans of Nuclear.

Paul Nevitt
Hi, Bret, thanks. It's great to talk, big fan of Titans of Nuclear, so yeah, great to have a chat.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, I'm a big fan of your organization. I've gotten out to the UK a bunch of times, gotten to meet a bunch of your colleagues, always so impressed with both your lab and the country as a whole and their efforts in nuclear. Before we get into all of that, I'd love to just learn a little bit about you. Can you take us back to the beginning, where you grew up and how you got into the space?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, cool. I was born and raised in the Midlands, in Birmingham, which is the heart and I call the Midlands the engine in the UK, industrial heart of the UK.

Bret Kugelmass
And what is it known for specifically, like, industrial wise. What was the industry there?

Paul Nevitt
Big car manufacturing, and in the place I grew up, in a place called Castle Bromwich, historically, in the Second World War, it was the home of the Spitfire manufacturers, the fighter plane. We built the most Spitfires, 20,000 of them in the UK. Then that transitioned into what is now the Jaguar car factory, and so my dad worked there, and my brother still does, so cars are big.

Bret Kugelmass
Hopefully they weren't electrical engineers, hopefully they're mechanical or something.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, that's a different story, the challenge in the car industry now, with the commitments to go electric. We talk about the challenges in nuclear, but gosh, they've committed to massive transition in a sector within a matter of a few years. Huge changes, and the UK just announced a big gigafactory for Nissan in the UK, so big movements in that. Again, we may get on to talk about it, but that sense of demand, and that acceleration for electricity supply puts more pressure on the energy systems. Lots of challenges in the UK.

Bret Kugelmass
Just goals, in general, in the UK. I mean, the UK, in a lot of ways similar to the US, had this manufacturing economy that they were very proud of, helped propel the country to the top of the world, but also has suffered, geographical shifts and technological shifts that have- does that come into play at all? Actually, first, I still want to continue with your history. What was it like growing up? Was the UK, did it still feel like a manufacturing powerhouse? Or were things already starting to change then?

Paul Nevitt
I think in my early years, yeah, I think it was, but then I do recognize the challenges, particularly my early teens and big changes in decrease and decline in the industry in the Midlands. And it was a challenge for the sector. We've picked up in the last decade or so, but the big challenges in terms of the manufacturing sector in the UK, a lot has been transitioned to Europe or China, in terms of manufacturing supply chain. Yeah, big challenge in terms of that manufacturing jobs. And I think that, for the UK, I think it's similar to Europe and the US. We've outsourced a little bit of the manufacturing capability. And again, when we talk about climate, that's really interesting, because actually, we've outsourced a lot of our emissions. When we talk about our kind of national goals, it's interesting, but particularly when we go to scope, one, two, and three, in terms of where are we getting all of our supply chain from, all of these countries? We've got - and we're jumping around a little bit - but we've got really challenging net-zero targets for 2050. And that's just the UK, but how much do we take responsibility for those emissions from around the world? But growing up, I noticed the manufacturing change. I'm one of three brothers. One went into the car industry, continues to do at the moment, and he's going through that transition. My oldest brother was the first to go to university and he then went on to do chemistry, but he's going into manufacturing now. And he's in the kind of brick making, house building type of manufacturing, worked a lot of time in the ceramics. Again, the ceramics around Midlands, and where I live now, just north of Staffordshire, pottery and the ceramics industry was big, and still, we still try and do what we can, but again, it's difficult. It becomes a bit niche, because we've outsourced a lot of that, but yeah, a lot of big manufacturing. A fairly normal upbringing, I would think, as I say, no real kind of challenges from a happy kind of upbringing, lots of opportunities, get to get a good education, lots of friends and opportunity to go to university and all that. Yeah, I had a pretty good upbringing

Bret Kugelmass
A bunch of engineers in your family, you went on to get a PhD, though.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, I kind of followed my oldest brother into chemistry. I find that side of things more interesting. I got on with kind of math and physics. Chemistry always kind of, I liked that side of it, although, I'm not great at the kind of making stuff chemistry. I'm a physical chemist, I would describe myself as. I never liked the long hours in the lab at a university and without making a product at the end of it, one of the most frustrating things. Organic chemists, a lot of respect to them, but I could never do it. So I did that, and I got a lot of interest in physical chemistry, and that's where I did my PhD. And that was my link into nuclear. It was that transition from undergraduate chemist, physical chemist, to then PhD opportunity come up with link to the defense sector in the UK, but looking at the fundamental behavior of actinide surface chemistry, so introduction to the actinides. That really got me got me hooked in nuclear.

Bret Kugelmass
Just for our audience, actinides are those elements that- can I describe them by saying they don't occur naturally? You got to tack on some extra neutrons and build up the periodic table, is that right?

Paul Nevitt
Not all of them. They're all radioactive. The early sites like thorium, uranium are natural naturally occurring.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, those are still actinides. Okay. Interesting.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, but from neptunium, plutonium, americium onwards, they're man made, but already radioactive. My PhD was looking at the fundamental of what we call f-electrons. The actinides have what we describe as f-electrons. From kind of your early school chemistry, you've got layers of electrons. As you go through your education, you get to know that they behave and they exist in orbitals, and one of them is f. That's what makes the actinides really interesting in their behavior. You go from early, in terms of uranium, you get what's called itinerant behavior, so they can bond these electrons, which gives you really interesting chemistry. But as you transition across through neptunium and as a transition of plutonium where it changes from being itinerant, where they're available for bonding, through to localized behavior, so they have different chemistry. And what I did through the PhD was look at the fundamentals of that with surface chemistry. I used a technique called X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy. Using x--rays, you can put packets of light, throw it out a material, and it'll kick off an electron. If you do this under high vacuum, you can then study that electron that gets kicked out and that has what's called a binding energy, which very much tells you where it's coming from, so you can tell what element and also the chemicals' behavior within that. I looked at that, I was lucky enough to do that study on uranium in Cardiff, where I studied, but also went to do studies on neptunium and americium out in Germany and the Institute for Transuranium Elements, the ITU, which was brilliant to get to go and do those.

Bret Kugelmass
Great, great university there, too. But tell me, what are the practical concerns with surface chemistry of the actinides? Is it just corrosion? Or are there other effects that you want to be worried about?

Paul Nevitt
The reason we did surface chemistry is that we wanted to understand the initial oxidation behavior. And actually, these actinides go around and prefer to exist as oxides. From doing surface chemistry in an ultra high vacuum, you can clear that oxide off. Because it's in vacuum, you can keep that that metal surface, and you can then see what that initial oxidation is. You can see the transition from electrons from bond to then they gradually oxidize and aren't available for bonding. Then that tells you more about that species and ultimately, that is linked through to understanding the fundamental thermodynamics and kinetics of of oxidation behavior, which is all the way through to whether it be in fuel chemistry, or in where I was linked through to defense chemistry. You need those under underpinning parameters to feed into the model, so you need that thermodynamics and kinetics of oxidation.

Bret Kugelmass
I see, so just to understand it better: oxygen loves to grab onto certain things. Actinides also have a preference towards oxygen. An oxide layer forms on the outside of, let's say, a fuel, maybe a fuel pellet, and then what you have is that oxide has different properties in terms of moving heat around than it did before that surface layer was oxidized. And so you can describe the thermodynamics of your whole system, the performance might be different as this oxidation occurs. Am I on the right track there?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah. But just be clear that the majority of the fuel in use today, though, is already an oxide, so it's a ceramic.

Bret Kugelmass
Right, so this would be more if like, if it's like a metallic fuel or something.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, and it's that fundamental behavior, as I say, it was linked, my studies were linked to more of the metallic behavior, which was linked to some of the defense applications, but the fundamentals of that oxide behavior does link to fuel behavior. And so, for example, some of the work I did was also to add some of the nitrogen oxides to uranium, for example, to see whether you could push it from U02 to U03, and again, see how you can change that, but also look at the uptake of nitrogen, so link into some of the work we're doing at the moment is looking at uranium nitride fuels, for example, which goes from actually you can have more uranium and better conductivity, so higher density fields.

Bret Kugelmass
Sorry, uranium nitride is a- it's a metal or what is it?

Paul Nevitt
It's a nitride, so UN.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, well, like what - just because chemistry is a little outside my purview - what physical form, like what does it look like? What does it take when it's uranium nitride?

Paul Nevitt
Well, that's, again, we just made some in the lab at the moment. It comes out actually is as a powder, like uranium oxide would do as we make it. And then you can form it into, it's essentially what you would describe as close to being a ceramic.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, another ceramic, just like U02.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, it's similar in that behavior, but what we're looking at - and we can talk about what we do in a moment - but the advantage of those higher density fields, again, is linked to improve performance of, if you can get more uranium in and better conductivity, you get improved fuel performance, but there's a whole load of stuff we've got to do before we get to the point where you can use that as a fuel say, and you've got to prove that.

Bret Kugelmass
Got it and just to tie back to the practical application, when you say density, what you mean is that, normally a uranium oxide pellet, if you were to just kind of pack them in into your core geometry, you can only fit so many uranium atoms in there, because they've got the O2s and those take up space and the molecular structure takes up a certain space, but if you bond the EU to something else, like the nitride, like nitrogen in this case, to create the nitride, the overall geometry maybe takes up less space, and therefore, in that same core geometry, you can incorporate more uranium atoms and that might have better economic performance, let's say, for a reactor.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, yeah, that's essentially it, you get more uranium in there and ultimately, the ambition is to increase the time between outages. For example, you can run your reactor for longer and therefore, economically that works out better, but we're still in some of the initial stages of that. And I can talk about more of what we were doing around that and what we're investing in at the moment.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, we'll come back to that. I still want to go through your whole career. That's the problem with technical people, I love doing the deep dives, and so we get pretty distracted, but don't worry, we'll keep on track. Okay, then next, you went to Rolls Royce, is that right?

Paul Nevitt
There was a step before. I went to an organization called AWE, which was a defense program of deterrence in the UK and I spent six, seven years looking at tritium. Again, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen. There are a number of applications for that, but ultimately, I spent six years looking at hydrogen storage, so running laboratories, looking again at understanding the thermodynamics or the energies associated with putting hydrogen on and off of materials, how you store it, what energy you need to put in to get it.

Bret Kugelmass
And that's coming back into favor, now. I mean, that is like the- everywhere I go, hydrogen, hydrogen, hydrogen, and one of the big problems is transport and storage. The work that you were doing early on was pretty prescient, or is it just that we're just hearing about it now and people have always been working and thinking about this issue?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, it's been huge for a long time. We've touched on some of these groups. It does make me smile, because everything comes in cycles. Hydrogen was like, early 2000s, again, was massive. I think the strategies from early 2000s, you could dust off and start again now, if you wanted.

Bret Kugelmass
Same with nuclear. Yep, yep.

Paul Nevitt
So yeah, we're linked into it. We had different applications in that, because we weren't worried about moving them around, so if you want to move it around, you've got to think about the mass of your storage material. What we were concerned about is, if we wanted to long term store, what's the right- and with tritium, one of the interesting things is you get decay products. You get helium-3. Again, I did a number of studies, which that's essentially putting in or calling in, so that doesn't react, helium doesn't really react. In the materials, like palladium, which we were looking at storage, that actually gets trapped in your material and can change the parameters, so we can change the amount of hydrogen or tritium it holds. And it can also change the rate of which, you know, hydrogen comes on and off over time, because tritium's got a 12, just over a 12 year half life, so you get, gradually, you get the amount of helium in your material growing. We did studies over long term around that. And yeah, the cool thing I like about all of this is there are very few people who get to work with these types of materials. That's what attracted me to nuclear, it attracts me all the way through. You go into work and gosh, how many people are actually doing this, and we set up some cool experiments that are probably still running today in some of those labs.

Bret Kugelmass
With the- so you were trying to hold hydrogen and the tritium inside of palladium. There's no like, I mean, is there a membrane that you could have attached to it to allow the helium to selectively pass through so it didn't get trapped in the lattice structure of your vessel and degrade the properties? Was that ever an option on the table?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, there are ways and means of doing that. Actually, what you can do in some applications is actually use palladium as a membrane. For example, because helium doesn't bond, the hydrogen will move through the palladium, whereas the helium can't-

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, it will move all the way through the palladium wall.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, through. Whereas, if it's generated it, that's why if it's generated internally, it can't leave, whereas you have different challenges in other materials. For example, if you use uranium as a hydrogen storage, which is great because it sucks up, it's got a really- it's really neat. It's like a vacuum for hydrogen, it will suck it up. And actually, it releases helium, so you can just suck it off the top and remove it, and send it away for the physicists to do their cool experiments at low temperature. They love helium-3, they crave that. But it depends on the material that you're using in those different application. But we looked at all kinds of things, membrane storage. It was just a really good time. When I look back, and if I was going to say to anyone else in a sector, make sure you do your time in the lab and have your time to kind of play with things, get your hands in gloves, if you can, in the nuclear sector. Really, really hone what you want to do and understand some of that kind of fundamental areas before running off to try and do everything else. I had an amazing time during those years.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, man, it's so cool. Like applied application, applications with material science. I mean, it's just like, when you think about anything that has fundamentally changed society, it's always a materials thing, right? It's like, okay, we can say there's been a lot of technological progress in the last 50 years, but when you're 50 years before that, things like skyscrapers that are enabled by materials, those things really changed society. And it's just shocking to me, the more that I talk to material scientists, there's still a lot of trial and error, which is fine - though, I think our new computational tools might help with that - but even so, you think it would be in the government's best interest to have material science labs everywhere, dedicate a ton of time, a ton of effort, a ton of resources, because these- I mean, even when it comes to computational effort, when it comes to telecommunications, it's materials that enable us to go smaller, to go faster, better energy. It's always materials.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, and I couldn't agree more. And one of the things that I'm really keen on is the empirical data, as well. We have got great models, but ultimately, when you want to put something into application, you need to have studied that. And it's a real passion of mine in terms of having access to those test capabilities. In my role as the lab's going forward, taking all my learning from where I've come through, that is one of the areas that, particularly as a national laboratory, it's one of the areas I think is absolutely key that we have that ability to do those testing. And as we go through and talk about what I've done through my career, that advice of pointing to government, or the time I talk about next in terms of my time of roles, it's all around application and needing to - as I describe it - getting match fit. How do you get match fit in terms of ready to deployment? And I think the only way you do it, sometimes, however much we've moved on in the modeling and digital space, there is still a crucial role for that empirical data getting in the lab, doing those experiments. Everyone's got a tale to tell that says, what was written down in the paper is not what went on in the lab. It's the very end of what went on in the lab, but it didn't capture all of those learnings through the lab that actually finalized in that paper.

Bret Kugelmass
I think that's actually another problem that I think we have with the scientific process, as through journals today. I feel like we don't capture- I think the negative experiments, the ones that don't work out, are just as important as the ones that do work out. And across scientific fields, you don't see any systematic capture of what didn't work. Not only do I think that there's a lot of repeated effort, wasted resources, which is one thing. I mean, there are probably just so many lessons learned in there that you can then use to make better predictions moving forward, if that were transmitted as widely as the success stories are.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, and I think one of the things who, as a lab, we are focused on knowledge management, and the best ways of doing that, but there's no better way of working with the folks that actually were involved in some of these programs. That's a crucial challenge we've got at the moment in the UK in particular, but I think, certainly I think in the US, it's certainly, because of the way our programs have gone in the UK, there have been peaks and troughs, and we're coming out of a trough say, we want to make sure that we have that overlap with folks here and through. I've benefited from it through my career, overlapping with senior experts' record and actually getting the time in the lab or getting time to work next to them, is incredibly important, because, as you say, even if we do video capture, it's an hour or so. You never capture, it's those times when you're in the lab, you've got half an hour while you're waiting for a result and you just get on to chat about something and then something comes out. It's those kinds of conversations that are really difficult to replicate. In knowledge management. We'll keep trying, but it's really difficult to replicate that.

Bret Kugelmass
I don't know why, why do we let people retire? Why don't we just keep them five hour- everyone should be Emiritus, like five hours a week. If you were an engineer, scientist in at the forefront of your research, sorry, you don't get to retire. Five hours a week for the rest of your life.

Paul Nevitt
It's amazing, the amount of people that aren't retiring, because they're so attached to nuclear. Amazing. We joke, but whether retirement actually becomes a thing in the future will be interesting anyway. But yeah, as long as people are passionate, it's hard to get people to retire. In our sector, sometimes it's the other way around. And in the UK, we're both promised the next renaissance is coming, so they want to see that and enable that as well. I had a brilliant time. But one of the things that that I wanted to do was expand, and we talked about that application piece was, for obvious reasons, certain work that I was doing wasn't going to get to application. It was still very much towards the theoretical. I moved to Rolls Royce to work on the PWR for the submarines program, and that was very much about applications. I had a brilliant three years. We're keeping boats at sea. I joined the chemistry corrosion team. Again, some of the most exciting periods of time I've been involved in, making decisions around performance of materials. All that I've learned to that stage, you put into practice to actually, there's a decision whether the boat should go out or not based upon materials chemistry and corrosion, which is fascinating from a chemist's side of view. And what I really craved at that stage of my career was to be involved in that application. And there's, at times, we joke sometimes in the sector, about nuclear tourism. I got on a number of submarines, which, again, is brilliant. We commissioned this new class and the chemistry in that, so a brilliant time at Rolls Royce. And I was involved in a number of programs about introductions of new materials as well, so, again, that's really interesting in that, to get that responsibility. Again, moving and taking all the learning that I've done to apply to the corrosion testing, and basing the decisions around materials for new plants on some of the decisions and programs that we've put in place around corrosion performance of various materials. And linking into some of the things you just said around material science and how it improves society, some of the work I did was on hydrogen assisted cracking of fastener materials. Again, if you look at the history of fastener materials, so nuts and bolts across industry, and some of the failures across the industry, and how that's come through, and how we've improved our understanding of how these materials, how you make them, if you make them so they, over a specification or hard, they become susceptible to this form of degradation. It's really interesting to be able to understand that, to make decisions about applications.

Bret Kugelmass
And this, the embrittlement issue, this is radiation-induced and chemistry-induced? Did they play off each other?

Paul Nevitt
No, this is again, some of the challenges around a submarine fleet is the environments around, so the external environments, so some of the non-nuclear components, but they sat in an environment that is maybe seawater-laden, so you get in that type of environment, which, ordinarily materials are fine to, they're designed to take that and they're designed for the environment. But if, for any reason, they are manufactured out of specification, or the environment changes, you can get to a point where you build up the amount of hydrogen in the material such that it becomes susceptible, should there be a stress be applied to them above a certain level. I did a lot of work on stress corrosion cracking. I'm sure you've had people talk about it. You need a susceptible material, an environment to sustain it, and a stress. If you get all of those three, your material can crack. But no, it was around preventing hydrogen ingress from essentially water and the environment that it was in to a level, but really interested in that to make sure that your manufacturing specification stays within a parameter, because of the chemistry that you know and the corrosion you know, it really hit home. It's not just make this to this specification. We did tests that showed that if it was out of that specification, it would go and it would go very quickly, so hydrogen cracking is brilliant. You can watch it on the camera. It's brilliant. It's not like one of these gradual kind of, if you get hit hard enough with the right hydrogen, you can watch it. It will go, with the stress. It's really good. It's really interesting stuff. Luckily, we never had any of that on plant, but you need to do those tests.

Bret Kugelmass
So you know what your limits are, yeah. Really interesting stuff. Okay, cool. And then you finally got over to NNL for the first time. What happened there?

Paul Nevitt
Yes, through my career I'd spent some time in the US National Lab, so Los Alamos and Livermore, through interactions and I got that kind of group, understood the need and the role of a national laboratory. A role came up at NNL in the UK, and I jumped to the chance. I joined the - about seven, eight years ago now - joined the team as a chemistry reactor material chemistry group, so I was leading programs, carrying on a lot of the work I was doing, but from the other side. We were a lab supporting the defense program, but also the civil programming in the UK as well, so I expanded out. The first time really I'd worked across the civil kind of energy production sectors. We're doing work on zirconium cladding, so fuel clad corrosion. We will look, we maintain some of the chemistry models for the defense, but also for EDF in the UK. We help them with coolant chemistry, modeling to understand the chemistry, and the products that they may have in the circuit. Really fascinating times and I spent a couple of years there and really enjoyed it, made some great friends. The lab is amazing. For those that don't know - I know you've had a number of folks on here - but the lab in the UK was established in 2008, with the fission laboratory in the UK. Fusion is looked after by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, so you may have had folks on there, but we focus on the fission side. We've got six sites across the UK. Our main laboratories are on in Cumbria by Sellafield. We've got our central laboratory and our network up there as well in Windscale, but we've also got sites on the fuel manufacturing site in the UK, so Springfields fuels, which is owned by Westinghouse at the moment. We've also got a national lab facility on that site as well. We've got six - seven sites now I should say. We've just opened our first office in Wales, so NNL Wales has just opened up as we look to kind of do more in Wales as we move forward. The lab is exciting times. Over the seven years, I spent two, and then after two years, I got the opportunity to be seconded into government, essentially into an organization called the Nuclear Innovation Research Office.

Bret Kugelmass
I want to hear about this. Yeah. What are the goals of that organization? At the end of the day - I understand what the title says - but like really, what do they mean by innovation? Do they mean they want to do more materials research and groundbreaking stuff, core design? Or is it more like, how do we innovate across any metric, like even business model innovation? Would that be included?

Paul Nevitt
The short answer to that is yes, and I'll give you the long answer. They are context and history in the UK. Nuclear went off the agenda in the early 2000s. It came back on in about 2008 with a white paper in the UK that said, Yeah, nuclear could be part of the energy mix. Then around 2011, there was a fairly critical review from our House of Lords that said, Look, actually, if nuclear is going to be part of your energy mix, Government, you're going to need to do something about your your research and development capabilities. It's not going to happen if you don't take a stance and do something. In response to that, a number of things happen. There was a nuclear industrial strategy, a number of documents, but also in 2014, the Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board was was put in place. We've got a slightly different setup in the UK to US, but that was specifically to provide expert advice to government from an independent advisory board. That is separate to government, but what was also set up at the time was the Nuclear Innovation Research Office, which kind of set half and half. It was to provide advice internally to government, as well as support the advisory board. But the the advisory board was set up to say, look, government has set out this ambition and this 2013 industrial strategy, which set out ambitions to deploy Gen III, Gen IV reactors, to be fuel development capability, to have an indigenous capability across a number of areas, and set number of goals. The research advisory board was put in place to say, Look, we've set our ambitions. We're here, how do we get from here to there? And that, essentially, was the task of the advisory board. And NIRO, who was set up, so it was to look at everything in the innovation and research space.

Bret Kugelmass
Where did NIRO sit under? Was it with BEIS? Is it with a different ministry? Where does it sit?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, it's with BEIS. It's actually hosted by the National Lab, but it sits separate. There's what we call an ethical divide, so it's not part- so I should have said NNL has a different model to the US national labs. It's government-owned, but it's fully commercial. It doesn't get any direct funding, so it's a fully commercial lab. We get to reinvest some of our profits only to reinvest, but we don't get any direct- at present, we don't get any direct funding. NIRO has to sit outside of that, from an ethical point of view.

Bret Kugelmass
Because it's a government-funded group. Got it. Okay.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, it links into BEIS, so the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, What was before then to DECC, so Department of Energy and Climate Change, as well as the business department before then. So it links into that and that's where the policy for nuclear is developed. And ultimately, with NIRO providing advice and a number of reports that can be looked at, NIRO helped government develop the business cases in order to justify the investment, and in 2016 - and actually, when I joined NIRO in 2016 -the first six months of my joining NIRO was about underpinning those business cases. And at the back end of 2016, early 2017, we saw for the first time in a generation in the UK, investment flow out of government in future nuclear energy research. We invest quite a lot in waste and decommissioning, but we've not invested - other than fusion - in future energy, so it was huge. It was a big step forward, and it still is. We're coming to the end of that spending period at the moment where we are, but the last four or five years has seen a real step change in the UK and what we've been able to invest in. We've seen investment in fuels and materials and reactor design, also in safety, security, some of the strategic analysis around things. We've seen work with regulatory upscaling. All of that has come together over the last few years, and we've seen the start of an SMR program. I know you've had Rich and Alan Woods and others on that, and that's making great strides forward in terms of the UK SMR. We've had, I didn't think we'd ever see a program that looked at advanced reactors so quickly, but we've had our advanced modular reactor program, where government - it's small at the moment - but we're investing in advanced reactor design, which was unheard of, four or five years ago, so huge in terms of that capability for the UK. And all that has helped, and the work, the ideas and subsequent people in NIRO and others, as I'm sure is underpinned now, what we see in the most recent energy white paper in the UK, which is a commitment to large, small, and advanced nuclear as being part of the energy mix going forward with hopefully commitment to fund the large reactors, the sizeable next investment in the light water reactors, but also we've seen a commitment to demonstrate an advanced reactor demonstrator by the early 2030s, which again, is a huge change in in the UK, and really exciting prospects.

Bret Kugelmass
But doesn't - I mean, 2030 - doesn't that still seem too far off? Like, you know that we can do it faster than that. In the US in the 1960s, they built first-of-a-kind reactors in three years. In the 1950s, we built like 50 different reactors here. And I know you guys are just as good as us when it comes to reactor design, so it's like, why can't we do it- okay, if we all admit climate change is a real problem and you're- forget your 2050 net-zero goals. I heard that you're 2035 goals are ridiculously aggressive, which is great, which is great, but doesn't that mean that we shouldn't wait to get our first advanced reactor up like a year before we have to decarbonize 80% of the grid? Can we get it up in three years? Why not? Give me a good reason why we can't.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, I've similarly looked at the history in the UK and Calder Hall and others and the timeframes we've done, so I agree, but there's two bits to my head here is that, as I say, two or three years ago, nuclear was struggling to be on the political agenda. I think I've just seen in black and white in government policy to commit to innovate demonstrator units is groundbreaking. I think now we have that challenge to accelerate that. I agree, this is the decisive decade for climate. We look at all the technologies across, nuclear is no different. How do we accelerate that? We were contacted about a year ago, so the lab did a study on how we could accelerate that, talking to a bunch of folks. We looked at all the things we could do to bring that early. One of the things that came out of that, clearly, is get going quicker. One of the longest time periods we take in some of these is actually making the decision to start. We've seen it across a number of things, and it depends where you take your timeframe from. I think, in terms of build, I agree with you. I think we need to optimize that in terms of timeframes of build. It's all the other things around that. We increase the timescales from site selection through to licensing, all of that, I think financial investment decisions. But I sit here going, you guys in the US have committed to 2027 for X-energy and Natrium to be built, that set a bar of that timeframe. I think, as a sector, we need to keep challenging ourselves of why do we accept a certain time frame. And I think, as a lab, particularly as a laboratory, we have a position to go down. What can we do to look to optimize those timeframes? The study we did last year, we continue to look at some of the work we've done recently to look at actually a full energy system model that said, Okay, what happens if we bought it earlier? What would be the impact? If we have commercial rollout of X reactor by 2035, what happens if we have commercial rollout by 2030? What does that mean for an energy system in terms of the full energy system, and that, the study we've done, is the first time nuclear's been properly looked at in that detail in a full UK energy system model. We're providing, as a lab, the parameters space to target. I think we've then got to work with the policymakers, create the environment we can to support that going forward. Again, I put it from a lab perspective, I like to use some of- are you aware of David MacKay? He used to be Chief Science Adviser to the government, sadly, no longer with us, but got an incredible book-

Bret Kugelmass
The hot air book?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, but he always said, We need a plan that adds up. And that's where I see the lab and the technical community is, okay, forget everything else, the politics and everything around it. We need to provide the underpinning evidence, so we have a plan that adds up. If we do that, that's all we can do and policy and everything else, those decisions will need to be made for whatever reason, but we need to provide that evidence base that says, We can do this because of this. And we go back to what we discussed earlier around the testing and things like that. We're looking at the moment how do we accelerate fuel production processes. One of the things is we want to build a demonstrator or reactor by 2030. But okay, if we bring it forward, have we got a fuel supply for it, so we also need to look at how we accelerate that. And there are certain things - irradiation testing and others - that just take a certain period of time, because of the physics. For us, we need to look at that and go, what's the art of the possible in some of these things? I agree, we can accelerate and do parallel development, and we should be doing everything we can and we should be challenging ourselves across the board to accelerate, because I'm like you. The big challenge for me is climate. It's not nuclear deployment. Nuclear deployment enables us to deliver the climate goals we want as the UK and internationally. I believe, passionately, nuclear has a role and we should be delivering that. We're no different to anyone else. We need to accelerate and be that technology that's there for people that want to use it, if policymakers decide that is what they need, which, if you leave it out, it's leaving a tool out of the toolbox, which makes your job a lot more difficult.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, leaving some tool. A tool that uses 1,000 times less material, 1,000 times less land for the same amount of energy produced. That's a hell of a tool that I'd bring wtih you.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, and I think as well as the sector, we need to recognize that, again, some of the modeling we've done, even with nuclear deployed to whatever level, you're still going to need other stuff., You're still going to need the negative emissions in some areas. You're going to need the carbon capture in some areas. You're going to need direct air capture. You're going to need, potentially, biomass or changing behaviors. Again, we need to change the narrative a little bit around and I'm very passionate about talking about nuclear in the context of understanding that full system. If X happens, Y does. For example, in the UK, a lot of some of the models we've been working on, it looks at what we call more skeptical technology, so 99% carbon capture, or direct air capture becomes available. That changes your options in an energy system, and that changes potentially, the role for nuclear in it. If carbon capture at 99% is available to produce hydrogen, you'll probably move your nuclear away from hydrogen production to power generation. And this is the balance across it, but it's incredibly difficult to get to net-zero. It's one of the most difficult things that I think, why, if not the most difficult thing that society's got to deliver. And I think being able to put the nuclear context in that context of the wider system enables us to have a more kind of detailed discussion around it. And then we can ask people to meet us halfway. One of the reasons we did the energy modeling was some of the nuclear isn't represented in some of the models. Clearly, you've got no nuclear deployment, because you've assumed it's expensive and slow, so you've left it out. We've got to work to change some of that to make sure that analysis is available. Yeah, I think, as I said-

Bret Kugelmass
I was just gonna ask, lead us into your current role. I mean, this is awesome. Congratulations, you're in a position to really have a huge voice and a huge impact here. What's expected of you in this new role. What are you going to deliver?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, again, I couldn't be more excited about this role, when I started to now in this role. Being responsible, leading the science and technology for the National Lab is an incredible privilege and responsibility. We've got some really strong ambitions as the lab. We've just announced our strategic plan, which is launched in four key areas. That'd be clean energy, environmental restoration, nuclear medicine, and security and non-proliferation. In each of those areas, we need to drive forward the underpinning science and technology that enables us to deliver the solutions. And as we say, so nuclear science benefits society. We need to ensure that's in place. As I said, we have the ability to reinvest investment in the laboratory, and in what we make. That budget will sit with myself working closely with Fiona Rayment, who you've interviewed before, the Chief Science Technology Officer is amazing. We've got huge visions around where we want to take where we are now, to where we want to be. What does the lab look like in 2030? We want to see, for example, the lab playing a key part in the demonstration of advanced technologies. That's absolutely crucial. We've talked about it, how do we do that? What's the lab's role and what do we do to invest in that? But then, more broadly, we would love to see, and think it's incredibly important to have an indigenous fuel manufacturing capability, with the decline in the AGR in the UK, and that fuel manufacturer supply, where do we go in terms of fuel manufacturing to ensure that we have a fuel manufacturing capability in the UK?

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, what's missing in terms of fuel manufacturing capabilities in the UK? I know you guys have the Springfield side, right? Is it enrichment or what's missing?

Paul Nevitt
No, no, we have the full capability in the UK. We have Urenco for enrichment, but the manufacturing capability, the majority of Springfield supplies the AGRs which will all be out service by 2030 if we don't have a new build program. And the other thing is currently the new build, Hinkley Point, fuel supply and Sizewell is through Framatome, so it's outside of the UK. Some of the work that the Springfield Fuels will be doing will be looking to where do they go to the market to supply in Europe. They are expanding, but some of the work we're doing, for example, around advanced fuels in terms of coated cladding technology that we're working with the R&D means that we may be able to have the next product line that could be hosted out of Springfield's for the European market, for example, working with Westinghouse. We're looking at where that comes from. I think it's- for a nuclear nation, I think it's incredibly important to have an indigenous fuel capability. I think that's one of the ambitions, but also, across our focus areas, science and technology, environmental restoration, we've got amazing work going on. Looking post Sellafield operations, what we're doing there to drive cost out of that program, bringing in technologies around robotics and other things. Really interesting work there. In nuclear medicine, we're looking, can we re-establish an isotope supply in the UK? We haven't had one really for 60 years. Can we do that? What should we do? in that area? We've also got ambitions around supporting space exploration. We're working closely with the European Space Agency. For example, americium supply for those space missions, say, lots of things. So where do I see us going? I think, if nuclear is to be successful in the UK, you need a successful, engaging, inclusive, collaborative National Laboratory, pushing science forward, pushing it, dragging things through the TRLs, demonstrating and working with the broader community. Again, innovation and collaboration are two words that we use a lot in science and technology. And we're looking to expand that collaborative working, both nationally and internationally, to see how we accelerate where we can.

Bret Kugelmass
And what's the relationship between the lab and industry going to be like? Are there going to be industrial parks? Like science, advanced research parks setup, where you can have the lab in one building, and a manufacturer in another and a fuel supplier? Is that type of stuff envisioned as well?

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, watch this space. I don't think I can announce, but there will be an announcement pretty shortly in the UK.

Bret Kugelmass
Ooh, excited.

Paul Nevitt
A similar thing. We are considering that you know, and how we drive that forward. We've got numerous examples where we do similar things. We've got our what we call CINDe Center for Innovative Nuclear Decommissioning. We will work with community in Cumbria, similarly, setting up a robotics center in there to work and bring in industry. The program that I'm just moving away from, the advanced fuel cycle program, we were working with over 100 UK organisations on that program, from academia to industry to national laboratory. It's a true kind of national program, recognizing that you've got to bring everyone with you. That collaborative approach is incredibly important. But yeah, watch this space of in terms of what we might do by parks, and we are looking at different operating models that are successful. We, for example, have close communication with Idaho, and the team and what they're doing with INREC is amazing. That's working really well. We have discussions with those guys, and look over there. Yeah, we need to accelerate, and how do you do that? You work together, you provide the space to test and to demonstrate, and you enable industry to go forward. Because that's how our role, to enable industry for the benefit of the UK really.

Bret Kugelmass
Do you guys play a role advising on regulations, innovation and regulations, how regulations can be streamlined for small reactors? Anything there?

Paul Nevitt
We do have links in and we work closely with the regulators. We have a number of touch points with both the Office of Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, and we support them. They are very proactive in the UK. They're a great organization. I think they've had investment from BEIS to look at that and how they accelerated that relook to add design assessment process to make it more open to advanced and small reactors. think we're pushing the boundaries there, but we continue to work with them as a lab. They were involved last year when we looked at the how we might accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear, they engaged in that process and they put out a number of publications. Really positive about that space in terms of the regulatory space in the UK. I think, should we get the real go ahead in the UK, I think we're in a good space to accelerate, should we- I don't, at the moment, see - the way that our regulator is open and engaging - I don't see that as a challenge. I think they're ready to evolve, as we go forward to support that, which is really positive.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, that's super exciting. I mean, that's one of the reasons we're so excited about the UK, for a lot of reasons that you've mentioned. I think there is a real commitment from the government there, a ton of smart people, rich nuclear history, and yeah, from what I've heard about the regulator too, also willing to evolve. That's tough in some places. The regulators are just kind of, even if they say they want to evolve, they're really stuck in the old way of thinking, culturally, more than from an actual policy perspective. And that's, I think, that's created just so many challenges for the nuclear industry overall, so it's good to see that you guys might be a pioneer in that space, as well. We're a little low on time, so I want to give you kind of the final word. Anything else that you want to leave our audience with? And if not, just kind of paint a picture of an optimistic look into the future of nuclear for us.

Paul Nevitt
Yeah, it's been brilliant. From a UK perspective, I'm incredibly optimistic. We've- in the last three to five years, we've completely changed our look and outlook on nuclear, in terms of policy space, and also investment in nuclear in the UK. I'm optimistic that that will hopefully continue. I recognize that this is the decisive decade and we need a really strong UK National Laboratory. National Laboratories across, not just nuclear, across the board we've seen in the vaccine rollout, what investment and speed can do in good, strong R&D. Why can't we apply that across to really change, when it's a real challenge, when we've got deadlines, when we really want to make a difference. We've seen what we can do in real, top quality research and development. I'd like to see that passion and acceleration as though it is a ticking time towards that decisive decade, change that mind frame. But I'm incredibly optimistic for the UK. I think we've got huge challenges, but as I say, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else at the moment. I'm really excited to be able to influence and to collaborate with people to drive this forward.

Bret Kugelmass
It's great. Paul Nevitt, thank you so much for joining us, sharing your insight and wisdom, telling us your story. Can't wait to see you in person.

Paul Nevitt
Thanks, Brett. Yeah I look forward to seeing you. You're welcome all the time at the lab.

Titans Logo_2020.png