Keeping the lights on

17 October 2011
By Nick Smith

IET fellow Dame Sue Ion has strong views on the role nuclear power will play in delivering a sustainable energy mix for the future

“No government wants the lights to go out on its watch,” says Dame Sue Ion, one of the UK’s leading experts on nuclear energy. We’re sitting in the Charles Rolls and Sir Henry Royce Room at the Royal Academy of Engineering overlooking the Mall. We’re here to discuss her views on the future of the nuclear sector, as Britain’s contemplates how to ‘keep the lights on’ by rebalancing its energy mix.

In terms of media attention, 2011 has been a big year for nuclear. In March there was the Fukushima accident following an earthquake and tsunami. Two months later Germany announced that by the year 2022 it will have completely phased out nuclear energy that once provided 23 per cent of the nation’s power.

But when I ask Ion what’s changed since Fukushima, the answer comes straight back: “not a lot.” She says that most nation states “drew breath” at events in Japan, and reviewed their position. But, “those already on a journey to expansion or to replacing existing nuclear energy fleets decided that they would continue.” In the Pacific Rim it’s business as usual, while India’s prime minister has announced the continued deployment of power stations on an increasing level.

Before the Fukushima accident, there were more than 120 nuclear power stations on order or being planned worldwide. According to Ion “most of those are going ahead.” The only country to take what she calls “a surprising decision” was Germany, and this decision she says, was influenced heavily by non-engineering factors such as public opinion and politics. “This was policy making in the absence of evidence and facts: something Germany will either live to regret, or possibly reverse in years to come.”

When it comes to political hot potatoes such as nuclear energy some governments seem to act primarily to defend their popularity. So it can’t be easy advising senior politicians on such issues, especially when the churn of the short-term political cycle means there’s a high personnel turnover. “Even though politicians change every few years, one hopes that the arguments laid out are sustainable in terms of being valid for the long term. It can be frustrating. I felt we were getting somewhere with Labour when they were elected out. But the current administration sees nuclear as an important part of the energy mix too.”

Ion believes that nuclear energy has a key role to play in meeting the UK’s future energy needs. Part of that role is as a placeholder until the renewables sector can deliver economically sustainable power. In her capacity as government adviser she has urged the country’s leaders to take a realistic approach. “In a 21st century industrialised urban society, we will always need a significant amount of centralised generation while renewables are being built,” she says. “That’s where nuclear energy comes in.”

Public reaction to Fukushima was driven largely by the way the media saw it. Ever unwilling to let the facts get in the way of a good story, the newspapers screamed that it was nuclear Armageddon, another Chernobyl-style meltdown. But it wasn’t like that was it? “No. Those of us experienced in the design of the nuclear system knew that it wasn’t going to be another Chernobyl. In fact, our own Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir John Beddington, led a team of experts after Fukushima to provide the best advice possible to our own Cabinet, and to our embassy in Tokyo.” Referring to managing the public’s reaction, she says: “It’s more challenging in the days of Twitter, Facebook and 24-hour rolling news. But that’s just the reality in which we have to live.”

Ion says that one of her biggest concerns is that the public has “this inherent fear of radiation.” And she thinks “we’ve got a big job to do in terms of education about risk and perspective. The material that’s been emitted from Fukushima is not going to create long-term damage for Japan or anywhere else.” She adds that the real disaster – 25,000 people either dead or missing, 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed, 4.5 million people left without electricity – was not caused by any nuclear event, but by the magnitude 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake. But all the press focused on, says Ion, was a reactor that was “puffing steam.”

Engineering-driven policy

While Sue Ion is probably best known as an expert on nuclear energy, her current roles encompass energy in the wider sense. “It’s been my privilege to have been part of the fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, to have been on its council and to have been a vice-president. I chaired a sub-committee that looked not just at nuclear energy but also at all forms of energy. This was because we were so concerned about the lack of engineering input into government policy that was being generated by economic models with a complete absence of engineering reality checks.”

Last year Ion was awarded an honorary doctorate in engineering by the London South Bank University. In her citation, read by Professor Rao Bhamidimarri, her views on aspects of government policy were made crystal clear. “Setting out to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 is all very well, but in practice it’s almost impossible. The UK needs to carry out a proper engineering assessment to work out what we need and how we’re going to deliver it.”

As I read this back to Ion she laughs, explaining that nothing’s changed and this is exactly what she feels today. “I’ve worked with some of the most eminent engineers in their field in the country across all sectors, and I think that the policy documents we have produced are good, and they’re now seen as helpful to governments.”

Nuclear beginnings

Sue Ion attended an all-girls grammar school, “which had some very forward-looking teachers in the sciences, in particular my chemistry teacher, who didn’t believe in sending students to do normal things. In my case, he suggested that I did materials science, because it blended physics, chemistry and maths. At the time I was struggling to decide which one of these to follow.” She had always been interested in atomic physics as a topic ever since she was a young pupil. She remembers winning a school prize, and given a choice she selected a book on atomic energy “which I’ve still got. It was only a basic guide, but it signalled my interest in the subject as an exciting sector, and an understanding that it could be a force for good. I thought that if I got the chance I’d like to be part of it.”

From school she went to Imperial College where she read for a degree in materials science, later gaining a PhD in metallurgy, “in a topic relevant to the nuclear sector.” Back in the 1970s, Imperial College was one of the few academic establishments to offer a masters course in nuclear engineering. But “as with most universities, interest in the subject waned during the 1980s 1990s.”

Things were set to improve and by the turn of the Millennium, Imperial along with the university of Manchester, was one of the first universities to “really try to up the game in the nuclear sector and to recognise that students were going to be interested in nuclear power again.” New masters courses were introduced, and while they started off with “relatively small numbers”, there is now a marked increase in students studying nuclear related topics: “upwards of 40 per year.”

Ion has been a guest lecturer and is currently a visiting professor at Imperial on the materials undergraduate course and is looking forward to lecturing on the master’s course too. Ion reflects on her time at Imperial as one of real enjoyment: “Obviously you don’t do a second degree at a university that you don’t like.”

In 1979, she joined British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), where she spent the next 27 years in various roles, including 14 years directing the technology and research divisions. Interestingly, Ion’s entire nuclear education and much of her professional career in the nuclear sector ran parallel to the nuclear arms proliferation of the Cold War. This was a time when technology-induced paranoia and in particular a collective radiation phobia seemed to stalk the world, and yet “I never saw that at all. The weapons side of things was never investigated. It was all about energy.”

Since leaving BNFL, Ion has gone on to play a leading role in the SET sector. Her eminence in the field is reflected in an impressively lengthy roll call of senior positions, many of which she still holds. A former president of the Nuclear Energy Society and vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, she is currently a member of the UK Council for Science and Technology, a non-executive director at the Laboratory of the UK Health and Safety Executive and chair of the Fusion Advisory Board.

An expert on fuel recycling and on so-called ‘fourth generation reactors’, which promise to be safer and more efficient than their predecessors, Ion also represents UK nuclear science on the international stage, as a member of a number of review and oversight committees including the United States Department of Energy Nuclear Energy's Advisory Committee. Earlier this year she became chair of the EU’s Euratom Science and Technology Committee.

British ambitions

I ask Ion what are the UK’s nuclear ambitions in the wake of Fukushima. She says the UK has a “cautious and sensible approach” in that the Government asked the nuclear regulator to assess the impact of currently operating stations, while examining whether there was a need arising to hold a different view on building new ones. “Mike Wakeman, the chief inspector of nuclear installations came up with an interim report that basically said that while there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima, there should be no barrier to building the nuclear power stations that are envisaged here in the UK.”

Ion thinks that future generations will look back on our consumption of fossil fuels and wonder what on earth was going on? “We’ll be asking why did we burn all that valuable hydrocarbon resource, when we actually need it for other things?” She goes on to say that by burning fossil fuels we’re depleting “almost irrevocably” the global reserves of the planet in an unsustainable way. She contends that uranium has no other function than to provide energy in high concentrations and with a “tiny footprint.” She looks around the Rolls-Royce room that could hold a meeting of maybe ten executives. “A room this size will hold a reactor core’s worth of fuel – 1,000MW – and will happily churn it out for 18-24 months. It’s just incredible the amount you can get from just one small pressurised nuclear reactor. To get the same energy from wind, you’re talking about something like 30 square miles of wind farms.”

Sue Ion and the IET

Dame Sue Ion is a Fellow of the IET and has contributed to articles published by the Institution and is a frequent contributor to meetings and seminars under the banner. “What’s good about the IET,” says Ion, “is that it picks up membership right across the sectors and therefore gives the nuclear people a perspective on oil and gas, and vice versa. This enables you to get a much broader view of the energy challenges of the day and allows you to step outside your own sector.”

Sue Ion on renewable energy

‘A 21st century industrialised society like the UK’s requires reliable affordable energy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We have a massive challenge ahead to keep the lights on and our society running.

‘None of the renewable energy sources are cost competitive without major subsidies, especially in early years of development and deployment. That’s not to say subsidies are wrong, but rather that we understand what the economic consequences are, and how we will deliver and pay for the supporting infrastructure they require.

‘Renewable energy sources are not sufficient to meet our needs. In terms of engineering reality they cannot be delivered on the scale required and the sooner we examine the practicalities of what can be achieved, and what we must therefore also plan to do, the better. When you do the sums it becomes obvious that nuclear power is essential for the foreseeable future in significant quantities in the UK energy mix to guarantee security and affordability of supply.’

Sue Ion discusses skills shortages in the nuclear energy sector

‘Are we going to be producing enough engineers in the right sectors to service our markets? I think we should be concerned about it. The major institutions have expressed concern and taken steps to so something about this. But part of the problem is the supply and demand for jobs. What we’re facing in the energy field is a massive upsurge in requirements in the next five to eight years. But students are sharp cookies and they want jobs when they come out of a degree course. And so trying to encourage the right numbers to study the right engineering topics is a big challenge.

‘Also there is the issue of large numbers of students on graduate and post graduate courses relevant to the nuclear sector being from overseas. This masks the number of domestic students entering the supply chain for mainstream engineering.

‘There is a shortfall of UK students intending to go into the science and engineering disciplines that would enable them to take up a career in the energy sector afterwards.

‘What are the causes for lack of take-up in the engineering degree courses in general? Part of it has to be due to the information students receive at school and the attitude of schools towards engineering. There’s now a lot more in the way of choice for students, allowing them to pick and mix what they study and the career paths they choose. In the boom years of the service economy this didn’t matter so much.

‘Engineering wasn’t seen as a sector profession for a long time in the UK. Engineers were people you called out to fix your washing machine or your boiler. They weren’t the people who built bridges, ran manufacturing plants, designed Formula 1 cars or invented electric cars. From the point of view of selling the professions, the major institutions had a big challenge on their hands. But very often the teachers in schools haven’t had that much experience of engineering and have tended to concentrate on pure sciences.

‘Some of the cutbacks on the practical aspects of chemistry and physics mean kids now don’t get the excitement of watching explosions in the chemistry lab or playing with electrical experiments themselves. If you get kids engaged at an early age you might be able to get more to think about a career in engineering.’

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