New research hub to safeguard skills for nuclear revival

The UK government has given the go-ahead to establishing a national nuclear laboratory (NNL), and launched a competition to find it a commercial operator.

John Hutton, secretary of state for the UK government’s Department for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, says the NNL, first proposed two years ago, ’will safeguard the UK’s high-tech nuclear expertise, facilities and skills’ - which had dwindled because of a lack of investment in nuclear technology (see Chemistry World, October 2007, p56). Renewed government support for nuclear new build has been driven by the technology’s potential to provide carbon emission-free energy, and to ensure the security of the country’s electricity supply. 

Sellafield, Cumbria - the site of the world’s first commercial nuclear power station - will be the principal home of the new ’laboratory’, which will actually be a network of industrial and academic labs. The central hub of the NNL will be nuclear technology services provider Nexia Solutions, combining staff and resources from Nexia with other nuclear facilities, including the Sellafield centre. According to Nexia, there will be no government investment in the lab, which will be entirely funded by customers from the nuclear industry. 

’We expect the NNL to make a massive contribution to the nuclear revival in the UK and play the key role in safeguarding and strengthening the country’s essential nuclear skills and capabilities,’ says Peter Bleasdale, managing director of Nexia Solutions. The company says there is potential for new jobs to be created at the lab.

The NNL will be government-owned, but run by a commercial operator to be appointed in April 2009. Aled Williams, spokesperson from Berr told Chemistry Worldthat the deadline for the bid and details of the contract would be announced in the August issue of the Official Journal of the European Union.

Paul Howarth, director of research at Manchester University’s Dalton Nuclear Institute explained that the university formed a partnership with US R&D management company Battelle and UK-based international service provider Serco, with the contract to run the NNL being the ’key initiative’ of interest to the group.

’We’ve been working together for the past two years,’ says Howarth. ’With the experience of our partners and the academic expertise here at Manchester, we see ourselves as a strong contender.’ He added that the university would not fully commit to bidding until the details of the contract were announced by the government.

The UK’s Imperial College in London denied reports that it too would be bidding. Spokesperson Colin Smith said: ’Imperial is not bidding to run the NNL. The College is looking at ways of getting involved academically but there are no concrete plans at this stage.’

Victoria Gill