The UK energy industry is at a critical moment: as well as working towards ambitious Net Zero targets, we’re facing an energy gap in coming years as a number of our operating nuclear power stations are shutting down and coal-fired power stations are being phased out.
Katherine Miller, Muhammed Duman, Chris Griffin, Abigail Short, and Harry Bennell are all working on the UK Small Modular Reactor (SMR) programme that is designing a new compact power station. Whether its due to childhoods in West Cumbria, on the doorstep of Sellafield, or influential teachers, they have all found themselves in the energy industry. They’re our SMR Faces of the Future.
Why is it important to work in and learn about energy?
Muhammed: We’ve become so used to having instantaneous energy that many don’t realise the challenges of meeting future demands. We must produce reliable, affordable and clean energy, and I’m passionate to make a valuable impact as without solving the challenges associated around the production of clean reliable energy, the world will struggle to tackle climate change.
Chris: It is very easy to take energy for granted. As with all ‘products’, I think it benefits us all to be intelligent consumers of energy and to learn about where it comes from. Getting people interested in energy gives us the best chance of making sustainable, long term improvements in the industry.
Abigail: Nuclear could be the way forward instead of fossil fuels. People just need to receive a better education about the benefits of using nuclear power as it does seem to have a bad reputation.
What is your role on the SMR programme?
Harry: I’m in the mechanical handling team, which entails the design of handling and movement of all components within Reactor Island (the engine of the plant). My role provides exposure to a range of technical engineering – such as producing a calculation or using CAD to model a range of handling capabilities, to aid with optioneering and design.
Katherine: I am involved in the civil design of the SMR cooling water island which ensures the reliable cooling of the power plant. The design of the water intake and outfall structures are heavily dependent on the location of the power station. For instance, whether there’s a large source of fresh or saltwater nearby, local geology, or bathymetry of the chosen water source, all influence the form of the structures that can be used to transport, process and store the water. These conditions will be unique to any location chosen and so designing a cooling water island that can be built at any chosen site, with site-specific flexibility and still allowing for maximum modularisation is challenging.
Muhammed: I’m a process engineer in the Systems Design team and I’ve helped complete a feasibility study into the alternative uses of heat produced in the reactor. The SMR will primarily provide electricity by producing steam, to turn a turbine and generator attached. My work includes assessing the use of steam for other applications such as district heating, to make the SMR more flexible.
Abigail: I am a part of the Reactor Island structural design team, which entails designing the building in which the nuclear containment will be situated and designing the support structures.
What are you finding the most interesting, challenging or rewarding?
Muhammed:The most interesting has definitely been assessing the feasibility of sustainable technologies to be incorporated, eg: the nuclear district heating has never been applied across the UK but could be a low carbon method of heating homes as opposed to gas boilers. It’s very technically challenging as these aren’t typically applied within nuclear in the UK, however finding real applicable solutions is highly rewarding.
Abigail: I’ve been involved in the design of structures which I probably wouldn’t have the chance to design! This includes shear walls, retaining walls with buttress supports and using headed bars to effectively anchor reinforcement. I also enjoy the seismic aspect as this is uncommon in UK design projects.
Why is the programme important?
Muhammed: We clearly need nuclear energy to meet sustainability goals while providing safe and reliant electricity. The SMR programme aims to become more competitive in both cost and timescales while providing a safe and reliable electricity to the grid. As nearly all the UK nuclear fleet will be coming offline over the next decade, there is a clear demand to replace these.
Harry: The programme is an opportunity to expand modular and innovative civil nuclear technology, throughout the UK (and potentially globally) which will be an intelligent, affordable way to meet our future energy demand. By reducing costs, lowering carbon footprint and increasing the energy supply, the SMR programme will be of huge importance throughout the nuclear industry.
Chris: New nuclear generating capacity seems to me (and many others) to be the best solution to energy demand challenges. I also think the programme shows a willingness for big players to innovate in the energy industry which will be essential going forward.
Do you think the general public know enough about Net Zero and climate action challenges?
Abigail: I don’t think the general public, or my peers know enough as I only became aware of these when I joined the SMR team!
Muhammed: I think the majority are aware that climate change is an issue but there is not enough awareness in the how to address it. People generally know that renewables are good, and fossils are bad, but they aren’t aware why we haven’t made the switch to renewables completely to solve the problem. I don’t think people know exactly what is meant by Net Zero!
Chris: Recently, I think general awareness has increased greatly, with many people passionate about it and beginning to appreciate how climate change will directly impact their lives. I hope that this will be a force for positive change. But I don’t generally think that people understand the concept of carbon neutrality or the Net Zero challenges. More education is vital as ultimately overcoming the challenges is a global endeavour and the more people who are interested and informed, the better.
Katherine: I believe that the general public has a bad perception of nuclear as they believe it’s dangerous and generates a lot of hazardous waste. However, safety and environmental impact assessments are core to new build nuclear designs and their ability to generate clean energy is essential to prevent climate change.
How do you think we can educate younger generations about sustainability and the energy industry?
Abigail: At school through guest presenters from the energy industry - nuclear is just glossed over whereas solar and wind are talked about in much more detail. If nuclear got the same amount of attention, then maybe more of the younger generation would gain an interest.
Harry: At school and university I was exposed to a negative outlook on the use of fossil fuels and other unsustainable methods of power generation and detrimental effects. It would be more effective to look at the positives of sustainable and low carbon footprint energy - a more upbeat approach will provide a more upbeat perspective on the industry.
Muhammed: Sustainability at its core is about preserving the earth for the future and we can best educate the younger generation about this through leading by example. Basic behaviours (commute by cycling instead of car) will make us become more conscious about our own carbon footprint. These behaviours will filter down to the next generation and become habitual creating an environmentally aware society from a young age. One of the best ways is by teaching about the full lifecycle of energy and all impacts on the environment – through class-based learning and practical ways with a hands-on approach.
Chris: Ideally, climate and energy issues would be covered in the school curriculum to get students engaged from a young age. However, if you search for ‘sustainable’ or ‘renewable’ in the English primary national curriculum, you get zero results! I think the onus is on professionals from the energy industry to engage through STEM initiatives – especially those that encourage solving problems in creative or hands-on ways.
What would (or even do) you personally say to younger people interested in energy?
Muhammed: Have you ever thought about living with no lights?! Being able to switch the light on at night is not guaranteed and we should not take it for granted, there is a current challenge to providing energy for the future that needs a solution!
If you were the nation’s leader for the day, what would you implement in order to bolster our industry?
Muhammed: Alter the funding model of new nuclear power plants to improve upon its cost competitiveness. New nuclear power plants have historically been very expensive and a drive to reducing inherent costs is important for its future success.
How do we get Net Zero in the minds of people?
Muhammed: Similar to how the world has reacted to COVID with daily briefings and statistics, climate change is comparable, although the effect will be over a much longer term with a greater impact. A key action would be to better educate people on the impacts of climate change on a frequent basis with clear understandable statistics that people can relate to. Translating this into what people can do to mitigate against climate change will mean putting Net Zero into people’s minds, not only on news channels but all forms of social media platforms. Platforms such as Instagram should have Net Zero influencers.
How do you feel about being a part of future focused programme?
Chris: Like many engineers, I find problem solving one of the most motivating and engaging elements. With such programmes, there is a clear goal in mind with a number of hurdles in the way to overcome in novel and innovative ways. I also find it really exciting to step back from day-to-day project work and think about the energy industry at large, how it is evolving and needs to evolve. Driving positive change in the industry is a real source of job satisfaction.
Katherine: As a civil engineer, being involved in the nuclear energy sector provides a unique opportunity to be involved in cutting edge designs that will impact the world around for years to come.
Muhammed: I feel highly motivated being part of a future focussed programme which aims to address some key challenges of the energy industry by designing and building a first of a kind technology.