Comment: Stopping the slide and boosting research
Nuclear chemistry is one of the areas the UK has allowed to run down over the last 20 years, despite its recognised importance.
Since the 1980s, public investment in all nuclear fission research has dropped by more than 95 per cent and the industrial R&D skills base has fragmented and decreased by more than 90 per cent, due to successive privatisations and reorganisations.
Nuclear chemistry has a key role to play in the future of the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's £48bn nuclear clean-up and decommissioning programme will require significant resources and underpinning R&D in many areas, including nuclear chemistry.
As a critical component of nuclear science, nuclear chemistry has a special importance because it deals with the part of the periodic table (f block) where many other industries don't venture.
It can be split into two areas, radiochemistry and radiation chemistry. Radiochemistry is the study of the radioelements. Radiation chemistry is the study of the radiolytic behaviour of systems exposed to radiation. Nuclear chemistry is critical to nearly all aspects of the nuclear industry, ranging from decommissioning, clean-up, and waste disposal, through to current and future reactor systems and their fuel cycle technologies.
For example, radio- and radiation chemistry play key roles in areas such as the complexation chemistry associated with nuclear fuel reprocessing; the incorporation chemistry associated with the design and performance of waste matrices for storage and disposal; corrosion effects in operational plants in a radiation environment; radiolytic gas generation in decommissioning; and predicting the radionuclide mobility of disposals and discharges in the environment.
Keeping the nuclear option open, in line with UK energy policy, requires us to maintain our existing capabilities. A new build programme, should the political decision be taken, will require significant investment in new underpinning R&D.
The challenge ahead is to build coordination, invest in the specialist facilities needed to do the research, and ensure critical skills and programmes are properly funded.
It is against this backdrop that the University of Manchester has launched the Dalton Nuclear Institute (see p11). The institute will provide the focal point for the university's nuclear research and teaching activities and will coordinate, strengthen and grow its expertise base. Manchester is well placed to do this because it has managed to retain the UK's greatest university concentration of nuclear expertise and capability, despite decades of lamentable decline. The university already has strong, internationally competitive nuclear research strengths in a number of fields including radiochemistry. In connected areas it has other important nuclear strengths, such as in project management, nuclear medicine, physics, engineering, environment, socio-economics, and policy and regulation.
The institute plans to invest and grow a number of new research groups, including radiation chemistry. New professors and their teams will be recruited. This coordination and investment will provide a stable future for nuclear chemistry and other key nuclear skills.
The institute is also working with EPSRC and 10 other universities to set up NTEC, the Nuclear Technology and Education Consortium. NTEC is establishing a new, modular, postgraduate level nuclear programme aimed at students and continuing professional development in industry. Radiochemistry and radiation chemistry modules will be added in 2007.
One vision being developed for the future is for a national nuclear laboratory to bring together the UK's skills base, facilities and research programmes, which are currently fragmented and distributed across the UK. The most likely home for this would be the northwest, due to the concentration of nuclear industry companies, sites, specialist research facilities, and the Dalton Nuclear Institute.
Richard Clegg is director, Dalton Nuclear Institute, University of Manchester