An interview with Nuclear Energy Specialist Professor Robin Grimes

Supplementary content information

Professor Robin Grimes is Chief Scientific Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Professor of Materials Physics at Imperial College London. He leads a network of UK academic researchers, supported by the Research Councils UK Energy Programme (led by EPSRC), to ensure effective engagement with industry, and national and international nuclear energy groups.

In this audio interview, he talks about nuclear fission research, the long term role of nuclear power in the UK’s energy future, and perspectives on science advice from outside and inside Government. As a nuclear energy specialist, he played a significant advisory role to the UK Government in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the devastation it led to at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

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[Professor Robin Grimes talking about Nuclear Energy]

Nuclear energy is energy that you derive from changing the state of atoms. Now you can do that in two ways - there is nuclear fission and there is nuclear fusion. So fission is splitting the atom, fusion is building atoms up.

[Narrator]

In February 2013, Professor Robin Grimes was appointed as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also the Principal Investigator of the grant that coordinates the activities of academics involved with Nuclear Fission. This is part of the Research Council’s UK Energy Programme, which is led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Professor Grimes explained more about his role with the Nuclear Fission Champion Consortium Project.

Professor Robin Grimes - Chief Scientific Advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office [RG]

I’m going to start by trying to give you an idea of the variety of different activities in nuclear fission. So you’ve broken these atoms up, you’ve released lots of energy and the energy heats up the medium in which the nuclear fuel sits and that heat is turned into steam usually, if it’s a water reactor, and that turns turbines in conventional ways that you would expect if you were burning hydrocarbons to generate and to raise steam to turn turbines. So already you’ve got traditional power engineering issues, you’ve got nuclear issues, all working together so it’s a very diverse set of people that you’re bringing together with very diverse skill sets and you’re trying to get them to appreciate each other’s strengths, you’re trying to understand what each of these groups brings to the party as it were and how in the long run that will benefit the UK going forward, in terms of its research base, its industry base and its activities internationally, its international reputation.

[Narrator]

In March 2011 the nuclear issue was very much in the news because of the earthquake and subsequent Tsunami in Japan and the devastation it led to regarding the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. As a nuclear energy specialist Professor Grimes played a significant advisory role in helping deal with the effects of this.

[RG]

The UK Government has a series of chief scientists and the chief scientists come together to form the core of a group called the Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies or SAGE. SAGE then offers scientific based advice to COBRA and COBRA is the Government’s main disaster, decision making board and that’s chaired usually by the Prime Minister. SAGE, in addition to the chief scientists, has a series of other people from industry or from, in this case, the Office of Nuclear Regulation. Clearly that would have been important in that case and it also has some independent people that it asks from academia and I was one of the independent people for that group. It tries to understand the science that’s going on in terms of that disaster, in this case, things such as what was the decay heat in the nuclear reactor, what was happening when they were putting sea water into the nuclear reactor, what were the levels of radioactive species given out and which of those were of most concern, what would that mean in terms of the weather patterns. You can see it is building up the whole scientific profile of what was going on. We were able to make decisions concerning whether or not to evacuate people from Japan based on sensible science and the decision was that we didn’t need to evacuate people. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was the right decision. I think it’s interesting for an academic to become involved in those sort of groups, it takes you out of your comfort zone but it’s something that the government really appreciates, that it has this academic base, this scientific knowledge, in all the different sorts of emergencies that it faces that it is able to call upon and does call upon on a regular basis – that independent viewpoint, that considered viewpoint that UK academics are able to provide, absolutely crucial and very greatly appreciated.

[Narrator]

This year you have taken on the role of as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth office, has that changed the sort of advisory nature of the work that you carry out?

[RG]

Clearly I found that being able to make that difference directly to government was something that I felt was very worthwhile which is why I applied for the position of Chief Scientific Advisor. However, going back to that issue of the independence of the academic, you have to accept in joining Whitehall, in joining a department like I have, that you’re not going to be thought of and perceived as independent by the general public in the way that you were when you were a professor at University X. I feel that’s a bit of a shame because I don’t think, to be absolutely honest, it would stop me saying what I really felt about things. You are making a balance between understanding and being able to give more direct help to the government in terms of science and you’re complete independence.

[Narrator]

To what extent would you say that support from EPSRC has helped maintain critical research capability in nuclear power?

[RG]

Over the last five plus years, the EPSRC has included in its portfolio of energy an increasing proportion of nuclear fission and this is really reflecting not only the need to deal with the spent fuel, and decommissioning that is now occurring in the industry, but it’s also the prospect of new build, it is the prospect of the UK ‘s industry starting to produce components abroad for nuclear reactors that will be built abroad and this is a very interesting, exciting diverse area for us to be working with, so it’s been very important. Of course underpinning all of that is the skills. We’ve got to have those high level skills of people who will be able to develop the new systems, who will be able to go into the industry and champion the new activities that will be needed to underpin new build. So the skills are very important.

[Narrator]

Finally Professor Grimes has the following thoughts on the long term role of Nuclear Energy.

[RG]

I’m going to surprise you by saying that I don’t think it’s true that we can’t keep the lights on unless we have nuclear. In the UK I think gas, in a combination with renewables, probably off shore wind, could give us the electricity we need, but the question is actually is that the best way to derive our energy needs and I would argue it isn’t and that nuclear has a role to play alongside gas and alongside in particular renewables. Nuclear fuel offers a constant amount of electricity with a relatively cheap fuel requirement; and nuclear fuel’s going to be cheap for a very long time. Renewables are intermittent, gas prices go up and down quite a lot so the balance between those three types of renewables, hydrocarbons, gas really and nuclear, provide you the flexibility that you need to be able to keep electricity prices and supply constant for the UK in an uncertain world.