Flibe Energy in the UK, Part 2: Parliamentary Question

“Can a liability be turned into an asset?”

That was the essential character of the question that Baroness Bryony Worthington asked in the House of Lords on September 7th, 2011. I had the privilege of being in the House of Lords as she asked the question, and the response was very positive from both sides of the chamber.

Being there to hear this question asked was one of many exciting adventures that I had as Flibe Energy travelled to the United Kingdom to participate in the launch of the Weinberg Foundation, a new non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to the advancement of thorium and the fluid-fuelled reactor.

Wednesday, September 7th began with a visit to another acquaintance made at the ThEC2010 conference last year in London. Jon Aldwinckle is with Anthem Corporate Finance and he invited us to their offices for a brief morning meeting before our appointments in the House of Lords. Jon is a very bright guy and has been excited about LFTR technology ever since ThEC2010. He was also excited that we had formed Flibe Energy and were working on a plan to develop and commercialize liquid-fluoride thorium reactors. Jon has an impressive technical background, with dual degrees in engineering from Oxford.

Getting around London is both easy and challenging. The London Underground, or “Tube”, is a very good way to get from place to place quickly. Having gotten close to a particular location, the end-game of actually finding an address could be rather challenging. On a number of occasions I was bedeviled by the problem of being very close to where I needed to be without being able to quite figure out where it was. Fortunately, the Palace of Westminster (Parliament) is harder to miss. Getting to the Palace is easy, figuring out which of the many guarded doors to attempt to enter was a little harder. The guards must be trained to help out hapless visitors like us, because we found the proper entrance to the section nearest to the House of Lords and made our way inside to meet with Baroness Worthington.

I can scarcely convey to you just how magnificent the interior of the Palace of Westminster is. Every surface, every wall, every ceiling, is sculpted, painted, gold-leafed, muraled, or otherwise decorated in a dramatic and ornate fashion. I didn’t see a single room in the building that wouldn’t draw a gasp of astonishment from a typical visitor. Truly you could see a thousand years of empire embodied in the the beauty of that building. Even something as simple as eating in the cafeteria was cause for excitement. The Baroness’s friend Lord Grantchester joined us for lunch and our little group went out onto the terrace which overlooked the Thames River and for the first time I was allowed take some pictures and video. Please forgive my enthusiasm but I was having a lot of fun.

After a very enjoyable lunch and discussion with Lord Grantchester the Baroness took us to the Royal Gallery, which is a meeting area for the Lords and is beautiful and ornately furnished, as you can see from this picture. The desk closest to the camera is where I sat and participated in a live chat sponsored by the The Guardian newspaper.

The Guardian: Live chat: nuclear thorium technologist Kirk Sorensen

For an hour, people posted questions to the comments section of the article and I answered them. I made my way through all of the questions that were present (and reasonable) and at the end of an hour and with tired hands we packed up the laptops and power cords and met up with the remainder of the Weinberg Foundation group to prepare to enter the Lords Chamber and hear the Baroness ask her parliamentary question.

Outside of the Lords Chamber is the Peers’ Lobby, and this is where we and other visitors assembled, in four groups assigned to the four corners of the room, as the ceremony that marked the beginning of discussion in the Lords Chamber unfolded before us. Carrying a golden scepter, ceremonial guards marched and high-stepped the scepter into the Lords Chamber. The scepter represented the Queen’s authority, and by tradition discussion could not begin in the Lords Chamber until the scepter was present.

Then the four groups were escorted by ceremonial guards in four different ways to the galleries overlooking the Lords Chamber. We waited outside the door until they completed their prayers and then were taken inside the beautiful and ornate Lords Chamber.

The Lords Chamber is truly gorgeous to behold. The benches are red, while the benches in the Commons are green. The upper part of the Chamber is decorated by stained glass windows and paintings representing religion, chivalry and law. At one end of the chamber is the throne of the Queen, and in front of the throne is the Woolsack where the Lord Speaker sits. The scepter representing royal authority is placed on the back of the Woolsack. The Lords occupy red benches on three sides of the Chamber. The benches on the Lord Speaker’s right form the Spiritual Side and those to her left form the Temporal Side. The Lords Spiritual (archbishops and bishops of the established Church of England) all occupy the Spiritual Side. The Lords Temporal (nobles) sit according to party affiliation: members of the Government party sit on the Spiritual Side, while those of the Opposition sit on the Temporal Side. Some peers, who have no party affiliation, sit on the benches in the middle of the House opposite the Woolsack; they are accordingly known as cross-benchers.

The nature of parliamentary questions (PQ) is that they are a way for the opposition party (Labour) to make inquiries of the party in power (Conservatives/Liberal-Democrats). The questions are submitted and reviewed beforehand, and the government assigns ministers to answer the questions that are appropriate to the nature of the question that was asked. The Baroness had the second question on the schedule, and her question was:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in view of the recently announced closure of the MOX reprocessing plant at Sellafield, what plans they have for securing investment and new jobs in the local area.”

Since the question concerned employment rather than nuclear technology, Baroness Wilcox, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was prepared to give the government’s answer. The video begins with Baroness Worthington being recognized and she immediately asks that the question she submitted be answered, after which Baroness Wilcox rises and gives the government’s answer. Then follows a series of follow-up questions and debate, some of it prepared (such as Lord Grantchester’s question) and some of it spontaneous. After a few minutes of debate and discussion they move on to the next question that has been submitted.

The process begins with the Lord or Lady who submitted the question saying, “My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper”.

Here is a transcript of the discussion, beginning with Baroness Wilcox’s response to the question submitted by Baroness Worthington.

“Sellafield is recognised as the most important nuclear site in the UK, employing over 10,000 people. That priority has seen record levels of investment from the latest government spending round, which will lead to the acceleration of decommissioning work at the site. The closure of the MOX plant is of course regrettable, but Sellafield Ltd is actively working with the 600 people who will lose their jobs at this time, and everyone in the area is doing their very best to see that these people find jobs very quickly.”

Then Baroness Worthington made her reply:

“My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer and it is welcome that new jobs are being sought. However, my Question leads to the longer-term future for the site. Sellafield is a unique site in the UK and I believe that it could become the home of world-leading research into the use of next-generation nuclear reactors. Such reactors, as well as being more efficient in their fuel use, generating no long-lasting waste, can be designed to burn up existing stockpiles of plutonium held at the Sellafield site. In light of this, is there more that the Government can do to support R&D into new nuclear designs that will help to ensure that we develop the safest and most efficient new reactors?”

Baroness Worthington was referring to several possibilities opened up by fluid-fueled reactor technology. The first, of course, is the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor, which once started, has the potential to operate indefinitely on thorium fuel. The second is a plutonium-consuming variant of either a fluoride or chloride reactor which could be used to consume plutonium stockpiles while generating uranium-233 in its blanket region for use in other reactors.

Baroness Wilcox responded:

“First, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, and her new interest in nuclear, and I hope that she will feed in her views to the Government and allow us to help her where we can. I hope that she will share her vision of the new approach, which I think she was hoping would be based on thorium. On her Question, if we can turn a liability into an asset, this Government will explore every possibility. The Government consulted earlier this year on their preferred policy option for dealing with the plutonium stockpile, and will confirm their position later this year.”

I found it very interesting that Baroness Wilcox made the first mention of “thorium” in the overall discussion.

Lord Winston, who is a distinguished academic in his own right, stood and said:

“My Lords, does the Minister not regard it as a crying shame that this country, which after all pretty well started the invention of nuclear power for peaceful uses, is now annually investing less than £25 million a year in research into nuclear fission, which is way behind all our major competitors? That makes us the poorhouse for developing further in the way that my noble friend has just mentioned.”

To which Baroness Wilcox replied:

“The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is right that we have not been investing as we should. We have been in government for only a year and we are trying our best to get ahead as fast as we can. I know that he is doing wonderful work with Imperial College, and it is to people like him that we look to show us the way ahead.”

I think that Lord Razzall had initially tried to ask a question but had been shouted down by the Labor side of the Lords, because he then stood and said:

“Following on from the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, rather than jumping the gun like Usain Bolt, may I ask my noble friend whether there are residual liabilities under the processing contracts at the MOX plant at Sellafield in relation to cleaning up the plant? If so, who is going to bear them?”

This is a very good question that Lord Razzall asked, because as I would learn in my trip to Sellafield the following week, there really were tremendous residual liabilities from the operation of the MOX plant there.

Baroness Wilcox answered:

“There are residual liabilities, and we will have to work out exactly what we are going to do. Can we turn the existing plutonium stocks from the MOX plants from a liability into an asset? That is an area that we must look at and see what we can do. The Government consulted earlier this year on their preferred policy option for dealing with all those stockpiles and will confirm their position later this year. I thank my noble friend for his question.”

I liked what Lord Taverne said:

“My Lords, in dealing with the future of nuclear sights, will the Government draw the public’s attention to the fact that most fears about radiation are enormously exaggerated?”

Baroness Wilcox said:

“I fully agree with my noble friend’s statement.”

I fully agree with Lord Taverne too.

Lord Grantchester stood and said:

“Does the Minister agree that there would be great benefit to the area and the UK if the existing plutonium stock stored at Sellafield could be converted into an asset? With the right kind of advanced reactor, the plutonium could be completely consumed whilst making new fuel from thorium, which could be used in increasing carbon-free electrical generation capacity, generating 20 per cent more than the UK is currently using. Could the Minister confirm that this would be of huge benefit to jobs in Cumbria?”

The “new fuel” to which Lord Grantchester was referring to was uranium-233 that could be created in the blanket of a molten-salt reactor that was consuming plutonium in its core region. The uranium-233 then extracted could be used to start approximately 100 GW of electrical generation in LFTRs, which would thereafter consume only thorium.

Baroness Wilcox seemed almost delighted as she said:

“It would be of huge benefit to everyone if we can get this off the ground, absolutely. I really am very grateful, as is my noble friend Lord Marland, for the noble Lord’s personal interest in this subject. I understand that he is going to Sellafield soon and we would very much like to hear his views on his return.”

Finally Baroness Wall of New Barnet said:

“Will the noble Baroness and the Government do all that they can to encourage the creation of new jobs in these areas, as my noble friend has suggested in her Question? Will she also confirm that the number of apprentices already at Sellafield is the way forward in creating those new jobs and building a future for that area?”

And Baroness Wilcox concluded:

“I agree with the noble Baroness, particularly about apprenticeships, which I know are very close to her heart. UK Trade and Investment is looking at this area and seeing what it can do to help, the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership is working extremely well, the docks at Warrington have been opened for the new containers, and a lot of apprenticeships are, I understand, being sought in that area. So yes, I do agree with her.”

At this point they moved on to the next question and within a few minutes we quietly left the chamber and our group reunited with Baroness Worthington in the Peers’ Lobby.

Later on we met in the Tea Room and over time were joined by other Lords. They were polite and congratulatory to the Baroness. Some of them were quite curious about Sellafield and the prospect of turning the plutonium liability into an asset using molten-salt reactor technology. One of them had prominent connections to Sellafield. We also had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Tim Abram of Manchester University there in the Tea Room and discussed fluid fuel, gas turbine power conversion system, nuclear engineering education in the UK, and a variety of other topics.

That night we enjoyed dinner with the Baroness, the Foundation members, and Alvin Weinberg’s son Richard Weinberg, who had flown from the US to be present for the launch of the Foundation that bears his father’s name and honors his father’s legacy. It had a been a wonderful, thrilling, and successful day and would lay the foundation for many more successes in the days to come.