National Nuclear Laboratory


Sunday 25 May 2014


Talking to ETHOS magazine, Dr Paul Howarth, Managing Director of NNL speaks about the commissioning of a new plutonium research facility and other exciting projects. Ethos is published on behalf of Serco Group plc and is aimed at public sector leaders, politicians, academics and policy specialists debating the future of public services today.

Dr Paul Howarth, Managing Director of the National Nuclear Laboratory, on the commissioning of a new plutonium research facility and other exciting projects

The National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) is owned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and managed by a consortium of Serco, Battelle and the University of Manchester. We have a turnover of £85 million and employ roughly 700 people; 40% of our staff are scientists, technicians and engineers. Situated at Sellafield, we handle a range of nuclear materials such as waste, spent fuel and plutonium, and we have other sites across the country where we deal with uranium and inactive materials.

Our main tasks are to maintain and enhance the nuclear skillbase in this country, and to create a centre of excellence for nuclear science and technology. I’m delighted by the recent launch of a significant new project: the commissioning of new NNL plutonium research facilities. The UK has built up a stockpile of roughly 100 tonnes of civil plutonium through its historic nuclear activity, and this must be dealt with. At the moment, much of it is stored as plutonium oxide (in safe, purpose-built specialist facilities). Some of the plutonium oxide canisters haven’t been opened for some time – it’s a little like opening a tin of paint that’s been in your garage for 40 years. Has it deteriorated or is it still of good quality? What can it be used for? The new facility will allow us to thoroughly examine this material.

There are three approaches to managing the UK’s plutonium stockpile: store it, treat it as waste, or use it as fuel. My feeling is that it should be turned into fuel – we should derive the benefit of electricity from it.

One of the government’s climate change objectives is to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. To achieve this, we need to limit our dependence on fossil fuels, decarbonise the transport sector and continue our investment in renewable energies. And we need to do more in terms of carbon sequestration (the process of removing carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it in a reservoir). But nuclear energy also plays a vital part in reducing CO2. Take, for example, Germany’s experience: as a result of shutting its nuclear programme in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident, the country will produce an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. This is a huge amount – almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the Energy Efficiency Directive. As we decommission power plants that have reached the end of their lives, we need to build new ones. Renewables generally produce about 2.5 watts of electricity per square metre; a nuclear power station produces about 1,000 watts per square metre.

Many fears about nuclear energy are also unfounded: modern reactors are very different from the first reactors built in the 1940s and 1950s. Based on the findings to date, they are relatively safe and easy to operate.

In terms of commissioning the new lab, health and safety is of paramount concern. We are creating an extremely controlled environment where there is no risk of people ingesting plutonium, which emits radiation in the form of alpha particles.

Another project we’ve undertaken is a bid for a European Space Agency contract. The traditional solar panels used on long-term space missions struggle to cope with power requirements when they move too far from the Sun, (beyond Mars). Nuclear power is the only way to support deep space explorations because nuclear materials generate heat that can be converted into electricity as nuclear batteries. It’s very exciting to think of using 
this material to support research in deep space.

Paul’s Biography

2011-PresentManaging Director, National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), President of Battelle Energy UK, and Visiting Professor at the University of Manchester


Board member for NNL

2006-2008Executive Director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, University of Manchester

2001-2002Head of Technology for Nuclear Generation, Berkeley labs

2000-2001Special Assistant to Director of Technology & Operations, British Nuclear Fuels

1998-2000Research & Technology Commercial Manager, British Nuclear Fuels

1997-1998Royal Society Fellowship Post Doctoral Research Associate, Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute

1995-1996Consultant Physicist, BNFL Instruments