Interview - Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive, UK Atomic Energy Authority
Image credit: Nick Smith
The incoming chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Professor Ian Chapman, outlines his vision for a future energy supply based on the clean and virtually inexhaustible nuclear fusion principle currently under research at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.
“I think that ITER is the most important scientific experiment that mankind has ever done, or will ever do.” Professor Ian Chapman is referring to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a machine that is currently being built in the south of France. The reason for this, says the new chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), “is that it is pushing the boundaries of all of the technologies and science that we understand”. It will also, says the British scientist, “have a transformative effect on our society”.
ITER is a next-step experimental atomic fusion reactor that will produce an output of power 10 times greater than “the power required to get the reactor going. It’s a huge international collaboration” involving the constituent talents of Europe, the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and India. “That represents well over half of the world’s population and most of the big industrial nations.” For all of those partners, Chapman says that “achieving fusion is an absolute necessity. We all recognise that we need a large-scale source of clean energy in the future and that fusion offers that potential. We are working in a completely collaborative and open way on this very important project together.”
The UKAEA is, of course, nothing new. It was created in 1954 by the UK government to be responsible for the country’s entire nuclear programme, including research, weaponry and energy generation using fission technology. Yet today, the current incarnation of the organisation, based in Culham, Oxfordshire, “has one main mission and that is to position the UK as a major player in the fusion energy production market” by exploiting the engineering and technologies that “come about through that endeavour to serve the UK’s wider interests”.
Chapman goes on to explain how in the past the UKAEA was predominantly about fission research. Not to be confused with fission, fusion “is all about taking very light elements and forcing them together to produce energy, while fission is entirely distinct in that this is where you take very heavy elements such as uranium and break them apart, also producing energy. They are both nuclear processes, but at very different ends of the spectrum.”
Chapman reminds me of the problems with fission, including long-lived radioactive waste that “creates a legacy you have to deal with. Fusion, on the other hand, is completely clean with no long-lived radioactive by-products. It also has the benefit of more-or-less inexhaustible fuel supplies.” Further benefits include a high-yield, steady-state technology requiring low land use. Yet there is a downside. “Yes,” says Chapman, “there’s always a ‘but’. That is it’s really hard to do.” On the other hand, “that’s what this laboratory is for. To make that happen.”
Chapman takes up his role at a moment when fission is high on the news agenda, following the UK government’s green light for the Hinkley Point C (HPC) power station in Somerset. Chapman accepts that this might lead to a level of confusion with the general public, but is at pains to remove any ambiguity here. “This has absolutely nothing to do with what we are doing at the UKAEA.” Essentially, he says, HPC is a fission-based power station that will supply energy to the grid, while the work carried out at Culham is experimental.
However, there are some “clear synergies” between the two energy types, particularly in the auxiliary technologies. “We both have challenges when it comes to the materials out of which you produce the reactors. We both have challenges associated with how you might robotically perform tasks such as remote handling. In a fusion reactor, we have to perform maintenance entirely with robots. In the fission community, while you are decommissioning, obviously you are dealing with radioactive substances and you don’t want to put a human in that sort of situation. The fields aren’t completely separable, but ultimately the core of the process is very different.
“You need to remember that ITER is an experiment. It is effectively a ‘proof of principle’ designed to show that you can get significant energy yield. Yet it will not put electricity onto the grid. That will be the step thereafter. Once we’ve proved the principle, we will team up with industrial partners to start to build demonstration reactors. We have a roadmap that dictates our progress and the aim of that roadmap is to put electricity onto the grid by 2050.”
Chapman tells me that there’s a long-standing joke in the field of nuclear fusion that says the technology is “always 30 years away”. As jokes go, it’s not very funny, but it does point to the reputation the industry has of “being very bad at delivering what we have promised. That’s our fault. We brought it on ourselves.”
Yet today, what is promised and the timeframe for achieving it “is much more in sync”. It is perhaps more helpful to think in terms of a prediction made in the 1960s by one of the founding fathers of fusion - Soviet scientist Lev Artsimovich - who said that “fusion will be ready when the world needs it”.
Chapman thinks that this is as true today as it was back then: “We don’t need fusion right now. Nobody in the western world is without the electricity and the energy that they want.” Society is surviving in terms of its energy needs, says Chapman, “but we are doing irreparable damage to the Earth. Climate change is real and countries are putting in targets to try to curb that.”
However the targets, he goes on to say, are unachievable with the portfolio of energy sources currently available, which means that “we have to develop sources that do not produce carbon”. Fusion, says Chapman, will play a major role in the new portfolio in the latter half of the 21st century.
Environmental issues aren’t the only problems to face the energy industry. There is also the projected shortfall. “Population growth, especially in developing countries, will lead to an exponential growth in energy requirement. Projections vary wildly, depending on which model you use and what assumptions you make. Yet within the lifetime of my children, demand will increase by a factor of anything from three to 20. None of the projections say that energy consumption will remain at today’s levels.”
This is of concern because if today, according to Chapman, we took even the most conservative of these predictions and attempted to triple our production, “we physically could not do that”. This means that “we should be investing in all potential sources. We should be investing more in solar, more in wind, more in fusion.
“I’m not advocating that fusion is the only solution, but it is an important part of the mix and we must deliver it or the world won’t be able to function in future in the way it does now. Ultimately, fusion must go beyond potential and begin to deliver and that’s why I believe ITER is so important, not just to the energy community, but to the world.”
Chapman continues: “ITER will show for the first time that we can get to the point where the fusion reactor is self-sustaining and can produce more energy. At that point it has credibility and we can build reactors based on that blueprint.”
Chapman, who has a PhD in plasma physics from London’s Imperial College, says that the reason he got into the fusion field is because it is “intrinsically interesting. Plasma physics is a very young discipline, something we’ve only been researching for the past 50 or 60 years, compared with classical dynamics, which is centuries old. There is a rich array of new research to be done in the field and there is new insight to be made every day.”
Yet it is also of critical societal importance to a man personally less interested in “fun science” than working in a field that is “intensely mission-focused. I’ve always had an altruistic bent to my character and I want to make a difference to the world. I want to do something that is important.” Like providing energy for the next generation? “Yes. It’s a vital mission.”
There’s something of the humanitarian about the 34-year-old Chapman, who continually refers to creating energy as an obligation to his and everyone else’s children.
However, it’s also a difficult mission, because of the extremity of the engineering involved. “There are three things going on here,” says Chapman. “First of all, you’ve got to take the fuel to temperatures that are 10 times hotter than the Sun. Then you have to deal with getting that heat out without melting the walls. This means that on certain surfaces of the reactor walls, you’re putting an incredibly high heat flux, which is more than on the re-entrance of the space shuttle, which is designed to melt. Then, you have to deal with a neutron load, where the neutron source inside the reactor is the most intense neutron source on Earth.
“These three things sound bonkers. How are you going to build a reactor that even does one of them? Yet we have to do all of these at once. We come back to the idea of integration: pulling those solutions together.” As an aside, a fact that Chapman clearly enjoys recounting is that “the hottest place in the solar system isn’t at the centre of the Sun, but in a hangar in Oxfordshire”.
As CVs go, Chapman’s is remarkably concise, mainly because he joined the UKAEA directly after completing his PhD, where he has fulfilled a number of roles before becoming the chief executive in October 2016. “I joined the graduate scheme in 2004 and I moved up the ranks, slowly taking more responsibility” including heading up the UK-funded side of the business. “Now I’m going on to something bigger.” Much has been made of Chapman’s comparative youth, although he doesn’t find epithets such as “meteoric rise” in press releases about his appointment very helpful. He prefers to think in terms of being the right person for the job and when it comes to filling the shoes of his predecessor Steven Cowley, there is a mentor he is keen to follow.
As a plasma physicist, how has the incoming chief executive adapted to a role requiring a set of managerial skills presumably not taught in a postgraduate plasma physics environment? “Most of my new job is involved with stakeholder management, talking to our funding bodies, industrial partners and scientific collaborators. You get this with experience and you’re either effective at that or you’re not. It has little to do with your ability on a technical level, in fact almost nothing.
“People have asked what makes me a good scientist, but I don’t think that I am a brilliant physicist. I’ve always felt that I have a good nose for a problem and a good intuition for what is going to be important in the future.” Chapman goes on to say that as a CEO there are “various things that it is really important to be able to do: you need to look beyond the horizon to see what’s coming and start working on it now so that you’re ahead of the curve. You need optimism and you need to look for opportunities and seize them when you can. You need to be able to communicate with government ministers, policy makers, people within the organisation and the general public. It’s all about communicating your ideas, vision and strategy. Knowing about plasma physics is useful, but not necessary.”
Despite not wishing to make too much of being the youngest CEO of an organisation of this type, Chapman does concede that there is one tangible benefit to taking up this role so early in his career: there is a lot of time ahead of him to see through lengthy projects to completion. “Our mission is to deliver fusion electricity. I got into this for a purpose and we mustn’t deviate from that.
“The delivery of fusion electricity is not just about understanding plasma. You also have to know the materials you’re going to build the reactor out of. You then need to know how to build the reactor and put all the pieces together. You have to be able to maintain it and it’s really important that you factor this in right at the start. It is absolutely vital that you do all this in an integrated way. You can’t just say that we’ve going to make something 10 times hotter than the Sun and it will work. You have to think about the integrated solution. That’s why I think this lab is the best fusion lab in the world, because it brings together these different disciplines.”