National Nuclear Laboratory


Wednesday 8 December 2021

COP26 – what next?

By Dr Paul Howarth, Chief Executive Officer at the National Nuclear Laboratory

For everyone at NNL, net zero is of course front of mind. The scale of the global decarbonisation challenge is such that everything we do is geared towards bringing down carbon emissions by 2050 and supporting a secure and affordable solution for our energy future. Whether through pursuing new clean energy applications or innovating across environmental restoration – including how we better manage, process and recycle our used nuclear materials – NNL’s work is helping to strengthen the case for nuclear towards net zero.

Becoming an ever more confident, responsible and resilient nuclear sector that can be relied upon to deliver what is needed.

And with the events of the past few weeks, as the UK played host to world leaders, policy makers and influencers as part of COP26, crucial conversations have been underway about the urgency of our global decarbonisation efforts – reflecting the need for collaboration across every country and key business sector if we are to achieve our net zero targets.

More than this, what is undeniable is that these conversations have been spilling out into the wider public discourse. Debate around climate change is taking place in homes and workplaces around the UK between friends, families and colleagues too. And it is this widespread recognition, engagement and drive that is building greatest momentum globally for sustainability. 

Here at NNL, as the UK’s national laboratory for nuclear fission, we are hugely cognisant of our opportunity – and indeed our responsibility – to support and promote these conversations. That’s why much of our COP26 activity has focused on reaching beyond the nuclear sector and telling the story of nuclear science, its role and impact in a net zero world more broadly.

One of the most exciting elements of this recently has been an event with more than 100 local schoolchildren in the North West of England, where all four of our laboratories are located and which has such long ties as the engine room of the UK. Knowing that our people are our most important assets – and most inspiring advocates – this saw two of our senior scientists speak directly to the next generation about tackling some of the toughest challenges of the 21st century through their work.

Dr Fiona Rayment, our Chief Science and Technology Officer (CSTO), and Dr Rob Whittleston, Director for International Engagement, Security and Non-Proliferation, visited Dearham Primary School near Maryport, part of West Lakes Multi Academy Trust. There, they had the pleasure of speaking to children who are all as conscious and interested as we are in how the UK is helping to safeguard our planet’s precious resources for decades and centuries to come.

As well as setting out how nuclear makes up a crucial part of our grid’s clean electricity supply, they talked about transformative advancements in areas like space travel and the exciting opportunities for careers in STEM for young people. We were delighted to hear from their teachers that many of them went back to their classrooms with a sense of pride in Cumbria’s contributions to clean energy, and an idea that they could one day themselves be working as scientists in this space. It is this sort of feedback that I know spurs us all on and demonstrates the value of the urgent work we do as a laboratory and as a sector.

As we look at the enthusiasm and determination of our younger generations, it is also worth highlighting and praising the work of our sector’s own early careers professionals. The Nuclear Institute’s Young Generation Network (YGN) acted as powerful advocates for the role of nuclear throughout COP26 and I am pleased that their rallying call – #netzeroneedsnuclear – was loud and visible across Scotland this November. From bus advertising to panel appearances, they really did make an impact. We were proud to see several of our own NNL workforce among their number and to send a group of our younger staff to join the COP events.

For all our staff too, we felt it was important to emphasise and champion the importance that all our teams are playing towards tackling climate change and to the wider UN Sustainable Development Goals. Within our Clean Energy Focus Area, yes, but also cutting across every strand of work – Environmental Restoration, Health & Nuclear Medicine and Security & Non-Proliferation. All of these Focus Areas underpin the UK’s nuclear sector. That is why we have developed resources for staff to articulate and share what they are contributing to this, each day, with the children in their own lives. 

As we go forward, however, we won’t be resting on our laurels. We are determined to keep up the pace of this work – and to continue these conversations post-COP26.

There is more we can and must do to build a truly sustainable future for ourselves and the coming generations. That is why we are setting some bold and compelling ambitions for our own laboratory, including joining those businesses and organisations that are striving to hit net zero emissions by 2030.

What’s more, we will be continuing to think directly about our social and economic impacts. This means committing to increasing the value we bring to our people and communities – including through the types of outreach and engagement mentioned above – and the opportunities we bring to our supply chain and local businesses.

Building a #newclearfuture and building a #netzeroworld.