Power to the people: will the lights go out? Dame Sue Ion has been trying to convince politicians for years of the need to act to ensure energy security.
So Sue Ion's words carry weight. And that makes her concern about energy security and the pressing need for new generating capacity all the more worrying. "Will the lights go out? I certainly think things are going to get riskier as we move to the middle of this decade," she says.
"The fact is that the whole of our electricity market is now privatised, and most of the utilities are owned by foreign entities with supervisory boards that don't sit in the UK. The government might insist that legislation is paving the way for new nuclear but it has no say whatsoever about whether anyone actually wants to invest in it or not."
Ion has been at the heart of the creep towards new nuclear since the middle of the 1990s. Back then nuclear power was deeply unpopular among the general public as the fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster a decade earlier remained fresh in collective memories. Indeed, at that time, energy white papers were being published with barely a mention of nuclear power and the role it might play in providing future baseload energy supplies.
Slowly but surely, though, the reality of the challenges posed by dwindling fossil fuels and the need to combat climate change started to alter perceptions. The debate became less about whether nuclear was good or bad, and more about what options we actually had, recalls Ion.
"People started to realise that none of the options available were perfect," she says. "There was the realisation that North Sea oil and gas had a limited lifespan as we moved towards becoming a net importer. Climate change also came on the radar from a political point of view. There wasn't many reliable choices for low-carbon generation."
Around that time, Ion was employed as chief technology director at BNFL, where she controlled a research and development budget worth 100 million [pounds sterling]. The Labour party had been in power for more than a term and conversations about energy security had started in earnest. Ion was central to these discussions, pushing ministers to face up to the realities of dwindling fossil fuels and the need to combat climate change. "In fairness, Tony Blair was very receptive to what I was saying," she recalls.
"By 2004, many people had started to work out that new nuclear wasn't that bad after all, given the successful performance of fleets worldwide and that the sorts of new technologies we were going to use were proven internationally and not first of a kind.
"Also, it became clear that if we replaced our entire fleet with the new breed of light-water reactors and ran them for 60 years, we would only increase our waste inventory by 10%. With numbers like that, it could be sold to the public, and eventually new nuclear became an easier discussion."
But that was a decade ago, and there is still no sign of construction actually taking place. Sure, progress has been made. The Office for Nuclear Regulation has carried out an exhaustive generic design assessment of two reactors--EDF/ Areva's UK EPR and Westinghouse's AP1000--and planning consent has been given for a power station at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Yet we are still many years away from bringing new electricity generation online.
Ion is frustrated by the pace of progress. And she has also been disconcerted by the fact that the privatised nature of the utility sector means that the government has had very little say in the sorts of reactors that might get built. "The government has discovered that a free market means it doesn't dictate what happens," she says. "It finds itself in a position where EDF effectively owns all of what once was British Energy and has chosen a technology, the Areva EPR--without a competition--because it is French. So, EDF is moving towards building at Hinkley Point but it still needs big assurances regarding a guaranteed generating price to move ahead."
Meanwhile, RWE and E.On have sold their Horizon joint venture, which was moving towards building reactors at Wylfa in North Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire, to the Japanese conglomerate Hitachi, mainly owing to decisions made in Germany post-Fukushima. Hitachi intends to build its own Advanced Boiling Water reactors, but since it was not in the initial generic design assessment it will have to enter the race from a standing start. "Again," says Ion, "we have important decisions taken about who deploys and what is deployed made outside of UK plc."
To further muddy the waters, negotiations between government and the utilities about a guaranteed set price for electricity from new nuclear generation continue to drag on.
There are concerns that such is the urgent need for low-carbon generating capacity that the government finds itself backed into a corner, giving companies such as EDF a strong bargaining position when it comes to setting the so-called strike price. Ion concedes that this could be the case, but she thinks that the big utilities have every right to negotiate the best deal they can achieve.
"There is no doubt that fiscal restraint has made a big difference to the investment decisions that companies are able to make," she says. "The cost of generating nuclear energy is dominated by upfront capital infrastructure--the massive costs are a huge pressure on the balance sheet, meaning that there are very few companies who can afford it.
"So it's not unreasonable that, given the occasional uncertainty in the nuclear sector due to political issues of the day, companies want long-term certainty at the right rate that guarantees a return to their shareholders.
"The amount that EDF is seeking is probably cheaper than the amount that is going into offshore wind or the amount that would go into gas traded post-2020 in the international marketplace. So it's not as though the overall picture is unfair. It's just that, right now, when the prices that are being talking about seem high and the timelines are set for 20 to 40 years, people are drawing breath."
Looking forward, Ion's personal feeling is that eventually the bullet will be bitten, and the government will agree surety of contracts for the nuclear sector.
She says that brinkmanship over the strike price will have to come to an end at some stage to avoid looming energy gaps. "No government will let the lights go out," she insists.
She thinks that the government should pursue a balanced energy mix--split roughly between nuclear, fossil fuels and renewables. "That to me would seem a sensible policy as you don't have all your eggs in one basket.
"What I would say is that there is a need for investment in energy storage technologies to mitigate some of the intermittency issues that you have with renewables. But one of the problems you have when the market is split, rather than vertically integrated, is that it's no one's responsibility to develop technologies such as energy storage.
"We risk things falling through the cracks because we operate in a not very well integrated sector."
The other issue that concerns Ion is how to manage the legacy of nuclear operations. She is concerned that discussions about the location of an underground repository for waste often get bogged down by emotion and rhetoric. She says that the industry needs to do a better job of explaining how such an underground storage facility might be built and operated.
"We need to do a lot better in terms of communicating what it is we are actually dealing with here," she says. "Many people are unaware that the majority of the waste that would go to the repository is actually sitting at Sellafield anyway. We need a more informative debate about how best to handle the material that already exists."
Ion suggests that, when it is safely contained, nuclear waste presents fewer problems than other dangerous substances. "When it's contained it isn't the most hazardous material on earth," she says. "People don't think twice about the fact that landfills with historic deposits of cadmium, mercury and arsenic are around in perpetuity. Yet there is an obsession that nuclear waste is more hazardous than any other waste--it isn't. Our perception about what constitutes risk and danger is wrong."
Ion's atomic career: from forensic studies to lobbying politicians
What attracted you to a career in the nuclear sector?
It started in my school days. Atomic energy then was new and beneficial, and was an expanding industry. It seemed an interesting subject when I was doing physics and chemistry at A-level. I then did materials engineering at Imperial College and there was a module on nuclear engineering. I chose that option. My PhD was a study of Magnox AL 80 and its properties because crystallographically it was very interesting.
What was your first job?
That was at BNFL's fuel fabrication facility in Lancashire which had 4,000 employees making fuel for Magnox advanced gas-cooled reactors. I was a technical support engineer carrying out forensic plant support activities.
One of my first projects was investigating end-cap failures on Magnox fuel elements which were failing in a lower-temperature mechanism than would be expected. I was asked to find out why. The fuel elements were annealed in a bath prior to final cleaning and shipment and the temperature of the bath wasn't hot enough. We were in a slightly different mode of deformation.
I really enjoyed the forensic side of the work and by serendipity it built on topics I studied for my PhD so I had some background knowledge.
How did your career progress?
I arrived at a fortunate time. Much of the original recruitment in the nuclear sector took place in the post-war era, as there were a lot of scientists and engineers coming out of the armed forces back into industrial employment. Then it tailed off, until my cohorts and I came along as they were looking to replace retirements.
I arrived at a time of a gap between the previous generation and my generation. It meant that some of us got promoted into quite responsible positions.
Where did those promotions take you?
By the mid-1980s I moved into sales and marketing. In those days that required a strong technical background. I was dealing with customers in countries like Spain and Sweden who technically were very knowledgeable.
I really had to know about the products that BNFL sold, which for me at that time was light-water reactor technology. The commercial teams used to take technical experts with them anyway. So it was a small migration to lead those commercial teams, having already provided support to them.
So you travelled a lot within the role at BNFL?
I was based near Preston but travelled the world. The international nuclear community is small so I knew lots of people and was able to forge strong relationships. I did that for a couple of years and was then technical support for BNFL's chief executive at the time--Neville Chamberlain. My role was to brief him and prepare all his technical reports--it was a great introduction to government relationships.
That led to greater things and more responsibility?
Yes, I eventually headed up research and development for the fuels division, and then became technology director for the whole of the company, including the site at Sellafield. Then we bought Westinghouse, so that gave me oversight of its technology too.
Did you enjoy taking a more strategic view?
From the 1990s onwards I had to make more strategic assessments of the right research and development technologies to invest in and how that was managed in the company rather than the day-to-day engineering. But I was involved with big investments across the organisation which still had high technical and engineering content.
Were you concerned then that we had stopped building nuclear power stations?
Yes, I guess we all were. The last reactor built in the UK--Sizewell B --should have been one of five but it turned out to be the only one. That was disappointing. The privatisation of the electricity sector meant that the other four didn't go ahead.
The government was pulling back generally from public-sector investment in research and development which was deemed to be an industrial responsibility. Over the course of eight or nine years public-sector investment in nuclear technology fell off the edge of a cliff. Laboratories closed and it affected the university sector--we lost 5,000 scientists and engineers out of the sector in a decade.
So you must be happy to see the sector enjoying a revival?
We put a lot of effort into trying to build a case for investment in nuclear in the early years of the Blair government. At that time, energy white papers were either silent on nuclear or said we didn't need it. That was devastating from the point of view of the sector's performance. It meant the UK was always going to be a buyer of somebody else's technology.
But it remains a fantastic sector. Young people are seeing it as an interesting area, as universities like Imperial College launch undergraduate modules, and the Dalton Institute in the North West has been a real success.
Students would not have been signing up for these sorts of courses 15 years ago. But now there's a big interest internationally as countries in the Pacific Rim see nuclear as a fundamental technology they will invest in.
Sue Ion's biography
Born: 1955 in Cumbria
Education: Penwortham High School; Imperial College London
Career: Started at BNFL in 1979; progressed to chief technology director from 1992 until 2006
Other appointments: Member of the board of governors at the University of Manchester since 2004. Appointed visiting professor at Imperial College in 2006. Member of the UK Council for Science and Technology and a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Ion also advises the UK and US governments on nuclear technology and energy policy
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|Publication:||Professional Engineering Magazine|
|Date:||May 1, 2013|
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