After 37 years working for our nuclear business, technology director Nawal Prinja continues to look forward.

“The nuclear industry is changing,” Nawal tells us. “That means we have to innovate. There is no way we can just carry on doing what we have always done.”

Fortunately, research is one of our strengths. When the UK government wanted to create a new high-temperature facility to test materials for use in future reactors, it selected us and gave us £2 million to host it.

More government money is being invested on research into digital reactor design and new technologies for decommissioning. And there is increasing emphasis on research and technology development: the UK Government intends to increase its R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP, taking it to around £12.5 billion by 2021/22.

“We plan to develop innovative technologies that will benefit our industry,” says Professor Prinja. “This is not research for the sake of research; it’s innovation for growth.”

These technologies include:

  • SIAL, a geopolymer matrix that has many advantages over cement for encapsulating nuclear waste
  • RESIST (residual stress and structural integrity studies using thermography), a non-contact, remote method for assessing stresses in welded joints by using infrared imaging
  • Load-following techniques that will enable nuclear power plants to adapt to a rapidly changing world in which electricity demand is measured in fractions of a second rather than hours

Nawal is well placed to know whether a technology is truly ahead of the curve, thanks to three professorships at Aberdeen, Bolton and Brunel. These give him access to meetings of the Joint Nuclear Centres for Doctoral Training, where scores of PhD students present their work. It helps that he is an expert assessor for Innovate UK and also advises the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Nuclear Association.

The UK’s National Grid believes that nuclear will have to supply 31% of the country’s electricity needs by 2050.

“With fossil fuels being phased out and renewables still plagued by intermittency, how else can we provide enough power to meet demand?”

Undoubtedly, the existential challenge for nuclear power is to come up with the next generation of reactor design with greater thermal efficiency and lower build costs than current gigawatt reactors.

Professor Prinja believes that this is where the UK government will focus its research funding, adding: “Future reactors are likely to be high-temperature, perhaps graphite moderated, which would play to our strengths from designing and supporting the UK’s AGRs (advanced gascooled reactors). It is likely we will play a major role in the new reactor designs.”

This was borne out last year when our team, working with Rolls-Royce on small modular reactors, rapidly increased to more than 50 people at its peak, providing support on design concepts, early stages of safety cases, plant performance, fuel route, control and instrumentation, containment building concepts, and reactor designs.

Between our ongoing services for nuclear energy in the UK, support for the ITER fusion project in France, our global decommissioning work, our leading position in wind energy and the long-term efforts to create a more sustainable future in conventional methods we have a significant stake in our global energy production, it’s an exciting place to be.

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