National Nuclear Laboratory


Thursday 11 November 2021

The nuclear renaissance and a transition to a sustainable future

By Cicily Hillebrand, Graduate Chemical Engineer

This month all eyes have been fixed on the COP26 summit in Glasgow and climate change has once again dominated the headlines. With all the buzz around our energy future, I was excited to head up to Edinburgh for the Nuclear Institute’s Young Generation Network (YGN) Annual Seminar: ‘The Nuclear Renaissance: A Transition to a Sustainable Future’.

2021 NNL Graduates From left: Elen Williams, Cicily Hillebrand, Olivia Boardman

I have been committed to a career that helps find solutions to the climate emergency since sixth form but have only just begun my journey at NNL. The YGN conference opened my eyes to the many ways that the nuclear industry can play its part, having a prolonged and positive impact.

Throughout the day the critical role of nuclear energy in the path towards net zero was highlighted. The facts and figures paint a clear picture, as the only always-on low-carbon power source, nuclear must be part of the solution. A talk from Torness power station director, Tamer Albishawi, demonstrated the capability of nuclear power stations, pointing out that Torness provided 2.7 million homes with electricity in 2020. There was also a discussion of the challenges facing the industry, in particular the cost of financing new plants and how the regulated asset base model can lead to savings.

Helen Cox, a representative from Rolls Royce explained how small modular reactors (SMRs) can further cut costs of nuclear energy through standardisation and modularising the build of a plant. This focus on the nuclear technologies of the future was also picked up on by NNL’s Dr Rob Whittleston, Director of International Engagement, Security and Non-Proliferation, who gave a speech on nuclear innovation.

All NNL attendees

It was great to see how our four strategic areas: Clean Energy, Environmental Restoration, Health and Nuclear Medicine and Security and Non-Proliferation, contribute towards the future of the civil nuclear industry. I was pleased to see a mention of the Advanced Fuel Cycle Programme (AFCP), something that I’ve been contributing to through work on several projects.

For me, the highlight of the conference was a brilliant panel discussion where NNL’s Kate Wallace, who works in operations and technical support, discussed the importance of community engagement. Both Kate and Rob emphasised that it was time to tell a different story about nuclear. Changing the way we communicate with our communities about this is essential, we need to start focussing on including the positives of nuclear energy in our discussions.

Those benefits are not limited to clean energy, many of the speakers pointed to the use of nuclear to grow economies and create opportunities. It is important that our sector contributes to a transition to carbon neutral energy, by creating jobs and stimulating economic regeneration in vulnerable communities and developing nations.

YGN’s gummy bear

After a busy day full of interesting talks, we headed to the dinner to celebrate 25 years of the YGN. Between the dancing and games, we managed to spot the giant gummy bear, symbolising one uranium pellet the size of a gummy bear produces the same amount of energy as one tonne of coal! I left Edinburgh with a new conviction to start more positive conversations about nuclear energy and even more convinced that #NetZeroNeedsNuclear.