Why SMEs can fuel change in the nuclear industry

By Kirsty Hewitson, VP Innovation at the National Nuclear Laboratory

Significant challenges facing the UK nuclear industry are cost and timelines, both in terms of new build construction and dealing with legacy material during decommissioning programmes. If the UK is going to move away from fossil fuel energy production, and not be reliant on imported energy sources to support our national energy needs, tackling these costs and associated timelines is imperative.

If we are going to lower the overall cost of nuclear energy, we need to encourage divergent thinking into the sector and be open to collaboration and co-creation with businesses operating outside our industry.

We need to partner with innovative companies, realise that a high percentage of these businesses tend to be Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and encourage them to engage with the sector.


We recognise that it can be difficult for SMEs to enter the nuclear supply chain. Many of the tenders offered by the industry are multi-million-pound contracts, more suited to big businesses with a range of capabilities. However, there is a role for SMEs with specific technologies and expertise to play a key part in these large contracts through collaboration with existing supply chain providers.

By working collaboratively we can strength our offering to the customer and deliver innovative solutions in technically complex environments.

NNL, a government-owned National Laboratory that operates on a commercial basis, is supporting organisations with innovative solutions applicable to the nuclear industry. By allowing access to our facilities, including mock-ups of key assets present on nuclear sites, such as Sellafield, we can help companies conduct validation experiments and ‘nuclearise’ technology that has been deployed in other sectors.

As a conduit to the nuclear industry we are enabling companies to understand the complexities they may face when venturing into a new sector and support them in navigating their technology to deployment.


We are also working with Sellafield Ltd to jointly deliver their Game Changers initiative, which is encouraging businesses, academia and individuals to bring their innovative technologies and digital solutions into the nuclear arena and help accelerate the decommissioning programme.

The Game Changers programme runs an open call and also delivers three challenge led events each year. This initiative has already been responsible for reaching out beyond the nuclear supply chain and introducing technologies from alternative sectors.


Ceramic manufacturer Cryoroc has a diverse background. Its founders have previously shared their knowledge of ceramics with a range of industries, from motor racing to the defence sector.

The Sheffield-based company is developing a technique, using ceramic paste, to encapsulate nuclear waste material into a storable solid mass. This consolidated ‘product’ can be cast into any shape for convenient storage with additional benefits gained from significant volume reduction, higher waste incorporation rates and good resistance to solubility in water.

Although additional development and testing is required, the prospects for this are extremely exciting as it could have huge cost saving implications for waste management and long-term storage.

Based just outside Warrington, Rawwater Engineering has developed molten bismuth alloys as alternatives to cement for plugging oil and gas well abandonments. Rawwater is creating a range of alloys to provide secure, high integrity, reversible seals and coatings for the sealing or encapsulation of various systems in advance of nuclear decommissioning.

Examples of use include the emergency sealing of pipework and the underwater repair of concrete containment structures. The bismuth alloys is a reversible method and has the potential to ‘fix’ radioactive materials in wet or dry porous media.

Chester-based C-Tech Innovation collaborated with NNL to apply their non-nuclear experience of electrochemical technologies to nuclear challenges. This is exemplified through the development of an effluent treatment system that enables more aggressive decontamination agents to be used in decommissioning operations.

By using these agents a resultant lower volume of effluent is produced, reducing the waste burden significantly and reducing the decommissioning timeline and associated cost. The successful partnership has catalysed further opportunities to develop innovative solutions using our complementary skill sets; providing a win-win scenario for both parties.

By fostering innovative partnerships such as this, our combined efforts are greater than the additive in delivering truly exciting technologies. All of these solutions have enormous potential to significantly reduce costs within the nuclear industry and accelerate timelines.

There is a recognition that by broadening the supply chain to include SMEs, such as those mentioned above, the nuclear industry can introduce many more innovations. Unsurprisingly, collaboration is a key focus for the sector moving forwards.


This article was originally published in Innovate Magazine and can be viewed in it’s original context here.