The National Nuclear Laboratory’s head of innovation, Tim Whitworth, looks ahead to the UK’s first new nuclear rollout in a generation and the looming ‘mindset shift’ around AI in nuclear.

What was your first job in the nuclear sector?

I started in the sector around seven years ago, which is fairly recent in nuclear terms, as a technology commercialisation manager.

Having spent several years in academic technology transfer, it was a fascinating challenge to see how this type of activity played out in nuclear – and it still is a fascinating challenge.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

It has to be leading the innovation programme for the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). It’s an intellectually stimulating and rewarding role that allows me to connect with people across the business and the sector more broadly. There’s always something interesting to think about whether it’s a technical challenge, engaging with collaborators to co-deliver a solution or to hear about the amazing work our teams are doing across our world-class facilities.

What is the most significant way that today’s nuclear sector differs from the one you first joined?

As I’m sure you’ve seen in the news there’s a highly visible government driven agenda to pursue new nuclear technologies, build new reactors across the country and fund research and development and innovation to support the sector.

This is all against the backdrop of the net zero agenda, our need for energy security and post-Covid economic recovery and growth. It’s an exciting time to be in the sector and to join the sector, particularly at NNL which is driving economic growth in the north west of England.

For the first time in a generation there are going to be new nuclear technologies built in the UK and delivering electricity to the grid. Nuclear isn’t just suitable for electricity generation, it’s a high energy source suitable for applications such as hydrogen production; linking new nuclear to next generation fuels as seen in NNL’s recent funding announcement.

The future energy mix will be a blend of nuclear and renewables, and with the decreasing costs of renewables, nuclear needs to remain cost competitive in this landscape. Through innovating across the sector, we can achieve this and deliver real value to the UK to benefit society.

What do you think is the key to creating the conditions for innovation within the nuclear sector?

Multiple things need to be in place to enable an innovative culture to thrive. A framework that allows experimentation, trust and shared learning from those experiments or trials that don’t succeed is critical. The ability to try new technologies, new ways of working and adapt those for the environment we operate in has real potential to deliver innovation into the sector. We need to feel comfortable with failure – as long as we learn from it and understand the reasons why and pivot to the next iteration.

Collaboration is an accelerator for innovation in nuclear. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, skills, experience and expertise outside of nuclear that’s highly relevant to the challenges we face. Through collaborating with others, we can foster beneficial partnerships, bring in divergent thinking and approaches, and learn from each other to deliver innovative solutions.

There’s a lot of opportunity in the sector for innovation whether it’s the delivery of next generation reactors and advanced fuels through to decommissioning our legacy sites and infrastructure. There’s a tangible appetite for innovation to support the deliver and future of the sector.

Did you learn anything new about collaborating or innovating as a team or business during the pandemic?

We innovated as team to deliver projects. As with most organisations, NNL moved everything online, whereas before we’d have travelled to meetings across our sites to deliver innovation sessions or meeting teams. We also recorded and captured more of our innovation work to enable online dissemination to interested parties and customers.

Prior to Covid-19 we’d have held this type of technology demonstration, in person, in one of our facilities. We still do face to face demonstrations, but we record more content and make it available to a broader audience.

What excites you most about the next 10 years in the nuclear sector – any trends, tech or specific innovations?

I think how we approach and utilise artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technologies will be very interesting. In particular, how we’ll enable AI to operate within our facilities and for what purpose.

Will we have fully automated, AI enabled reactors overseen by a small team of operators monitoring 10 reactors, potentially located hundreds of miles way? In the sector its universally understood that it’s always safety first and foremost – throw in an AI engine that controls operations and makes decisions, and there’s a large mindset shift to be overcome.

I’m sure over time we’ll see more applications of AI – we’re working on some at NNL – but how far it pervades the sector will be very interesting to see.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the nuclear sector at present?

One of the biggest challenges is the skills and number of people we need to join the sector to deliver on the government’s ambitious plans for the nuclear industry. We need a large influx of different skills at all levels to grow the sector.

This is compacted by a significant number of the current subject matter experts due to be reaching retirement age in the next five – 10 years, taking with them invaluable experience and expertise. At NNL, early careers recruitment is seen as pivotal to address this issue, investing in our apprenticeship and graduate schemes to attract the next generation of talent in the sector.

Sustainability is also an obvious challenge, whether this is in relation to clean energy targets and reaching net zero or acting as individuals to be more ethically sustainable. To tackle this, many organisations and NNL included will be responsible for leading by example and setting the benchmark to ensure nuclear is part of the solution to nurture our planet.

What is the most significant way you think the nuclear sector of ten years’ time will differ from the one we see today?

We should be seeing more next generation reactors across the UK, supplying a consistent energy supply that powers our lives. I’d also like to see us with a more diverse workforce both in ethnicity and gender across the sector.

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