Imperial College London

Award-winning nuclear expert reflects on career

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Headshot of Professor Bill Lee

Professor Bill Lee

Professor Bill Lee is Director of the Nuclear Futures Institute at Bangor University, the latest role in a research career spanning the UK and USA.

In his 14 years at Imperial College London, Professor Lee was Director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, Director of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Nuclear Energy, Director of the Centre for Advanced Structural Ceramics, Head of the Department of Materials, and Co-Director for the Institute for Security Science and Technology (ISST), where he remains a Distinguished Research Fellow.

Professor Lee’s research focused on the relation between processing, properties, and microstructures in a broad range of ceramics, and he has published over 450 peer-reviewed papers.

In light of him receiving the Wendell D. Weart Lifetime Career Achievement Award and recent developments in the UK’s energy security, Jack Cooper of the Institute for Security Science and Technology asked Professor Lee a few questions.

 

You were recently awarded the Wendell D. Weart Lifetime Career Achievement Award for your outstanding contributions to the field of nuclear waste management. Looking back on your career, what do you see as your defining moments?

The Wendell D. Weart Award was nice to receive. A recognition of the work I've done in the immobilisation of radioactive waste in glasses, ceramics and cements, publishing some half decent textbooks in this field, and the setting up of the Immobilisation Science Laboratory at Sheffield University, which is still running and remains very successful.

But what I've done over my career is build teams in research centres and institutes. The Immobilisation Science Laboratory was one. And at Imperial, the Department of Materials, the Centre for Advanced Structural Ceramics, the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, the Institute of Security Science and Technology, and now the Nuclear Futures Institute at Bangor University. These brought people together and tried to push them in the right direction and get things moving. They are my legacy.

But also all those students! I taught undergraduates; I don't think I'm the greatest teacher in the world, I must admit, but to have the opportunity to stand in front of thousands of students over 40 years and to be challenged by them, work with them, and see how they learn, that’s been a privilege. And 67 PhD students from all over the world. You name it, most countries.

And of course, some of those PhDs were quite a long time ago. So, they've become quite eminent professors and senior people in universities and industry across the world: Singapore, America, Japan, China and others. I've got this sort of alumni network.

I forget that they don't know each other, and you know, they're all about the same age in my head because I remember them when they were in their early 20s. I'll have a conversation with one student and mention another from 20 years later. Of course, they have no idea who I’m talking about.

 

You moved to Bangor University to establish and lead the Nuclear Futures Institute. Could you tell us about the Institute’s work?

We now have 9 academics, 13 postdocs, 18 PhD students, and 4 technical staff. We're developing a new General Engineering undergraduate programme and a one-year master's called

‘Powering The Future’. It is going to cover all forms of low-carbon energy, not just nuclear. There's a lot going on in North Wales. They have tidal power, offshore wind, solar, pumped storage, they've got it all up there.

We're developing links to support the two nuclear licensed sites in North Wales that both have reactors being decommissioned. Given the current state of play in the UK’s energy security, nuclear power is suddenly much more popular. And there's real opportunities for us at Bangor. The team are in demand, our students are in demand. And we will continue to be so.

 

You raise a good point about energy security, which is at the top of everyone's minds now. In that context, how does nuclear power fit in with other low-carbon energy sources? 

Nuclear power will be important from the UK’s energy security perspective, because once the reactors are built the only thing you then have a need for is the fuel. A lot of the uranium comes from places like Kazakhstan, but much comes from Canada and Australia and once the treated ore is here we make the fuel in the UK so fuel security is pretty good.

It will provide baseload electricity, so you don't have to worry too much when the sun's not shining and the wind is not blowing. So, it will be important. A lot of us have been pushing this for a number of years and suddenly politicians have got interested. The situation with Ukraine is disastrous but it is making people think more sensibly in many respects of security of energy.

Coming back to your question about the [other low-carbon energy sources], we plan to do more with nuclear than just generate power. Co-generation is where you don't just use a nuclear reactor for power and electricity as is done now, but you also use it to make hydrogen for transportation or provide heat for other technologies.

If you have a nuclear reactor, it can provide the heat for steel making, glass making, cement kilns etc. And future reactors will work at higher temperature where “high temperature” heat is directly available rather than generated from electricity produced. I envisage “Heat Parks” of energy intensive industries clustered around nuclear power stations in future.

The progression that I expect for nuclear power in the UK is that we will build a couple more big reactors – Gigawatt scale reactors – and then early next decade we will build a fleet of Small Modular Reactors like the UK-SMR planned by Rolls-Royce.

And later next decade Advanced Modular Reactors, which include fast breeder reactors such as the Lead Fast Reactor planned by Westinghouse Electric Company. Maybe molten salt cooled reactors. And I think after that: fusion.

I've worked with the fusion sector since my PhD, which was on the joint European torus at Culham. I've engaged with the fusion people for a long time and it's beginning to look like we could do it, we're moving away from plasma physics towards engineering.

 

What has kept you in science and in university settings specifically?

Well, I never left school, really. I went through school, got not great A-levels, but enough to get me to university, and then at university I started to realise that this was fun. That I was enjoying studying and learning and questioning and challenging. So, I just carried on doing that.

And I like working with bright people. Of course, universities are just stuffed full of bright people. And young people. Working with bright, bright young people is just really good fun. And then why would I want to do anything else?

Having said that, I have worked with industry and government quite a bit. I've been on technical advisory committees, international technical advisory committees for big multinational companies. I've served on various government advisory committees in radioactive waste management and nuclear innovation. I've been on advisory committees to various governments, including the US: I was on a National Academies committee there, looking at the clean-up of their defence contaminated sites.

So I've been quite diverse without actually leaving university.

 

You have served on many committees, advising on various subjects to various governments. What are the challenges in that committee work?

The greatest challenge is getting recommendations to be acted upon. There always seem to be reasons not to do things. Maybe the weakness is mine and I have not made a convincing enough case. It can be frustrating, at times, you know, I advised on the need for various things over the years.

In 2014, I was on NIRAB (the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board). I wrote a small piece about the need for medical isotopes and security of medical isotopes supply in the UK. There was a looming crisis, because these medical isotopes are made in old research reactors and globally research reactors are closing down and getting older. And now, of course, nearly a decade later, the crunch is coming. We needed to act sooner and take bold and brave decisions. Hopefully, we will learn the lesson.

I've been advising the Welsh Government on building a medical isotope reactor in Wales. And they're keen to do it. But it comes with a big price tag of  .£500 million pounds.

So yeah, advisory committees are interesting and fun. But you have to be prepared to be frustrated at times.

 

What application of ceramics might surprise the public?

I've worked on ultra-high temperature ceramics, which are refractories on steroids, really. Refractories are ceramic materials that work at as furnace linings at temperatures up to 1500-1800°C, ultra-high temperature ceramics work above 3000°C. They're very, very esoteric, with potential uses in defence, power and space applications.

The nuclear fission sector is looking at various ultra-high temperature ceramics for high temperature reactors, carbides and borides in particular. Often non-oxides and often complex systems, and ceramic high entropy alloys with multi-element compositions, so that's a really interesting area of research for the future.

Reporter

Jack Cooper

Jack Cooper
Institute for Security Science & Technology

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