Past, present and future

29 January 2001

This is the second in a regular series that looks at how various individuals see the industry. In this, Dr Alan Knipe, group managing director of nuclear technology for AEA Technology, talks to NEI about his distinguished career spanning 30 years at the cutting edge of nuclear science and engineering

The nuclear power industry has seen many changes over the last three decades. Witnessing these changes – and pioneering many of them – is group managing director of nuclear technology for AEA Technology Dr Alan Knipe.

Dr Knipe first joined the organisation as a post-graduate from Imperial College in 1971 under a bursary from the then state-owned UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). He was appointed subsequently to the post of project physicist with the Radiation Physics and Shielding Group and after three years he took over the management of the Experimental Physics Group where he remained until 1984.

“It was all extremely interesting hands-on work with reactors during those early years," said Dr Knipe. “The UKAEA was a very large and very stable organisation, heavily funded by central government which regarded the development of nuclear power as a vital and fundamental requirement. It was tremendously exciting and we saw ourselves as being on a mission to shape the future of the industry.”

Dr Knipe’s arrival at Harwell coincided with the oil crisis of the mid-70s, which not only focused public attention on the ‘energy gap’, but which provided increased government backing and financial support for nuclear power development by the UKAEA. The single largest programme at that time was the development of fast reactor technology, which was also the most complex project ever undertaken by the organisation, absorbing around 30% of the Authority's total expenditure. Alan Knipe was one of the 600-strong team of scientists and engineers working on reactor development.

“We were head-to-head with both the French and the Americans in our research, with our efforts centred on ZEBRA, the Zero Energy Breeder Reactor Assembly at Winfrith in Dorset. At one stage, the sum total of all the available special reserves of plutonium throughout western Europe actually formed the core of this experimental reactor here at Harwell,” said Dr Knipe.

In addition to the fast reactor programme, the Authority was also heavily involved in both fusion research and the development of the most suitable type of fission reactor, with the debate centred on the choice of either the US-designed PWR or the UK's AGR. As project physicist and manager, Alan Knipe was involved in many areas within the development programmes; these included the specification, writing and development of radiation transport Monte Carlo software packages, data libraries and core meltdown simulation computer models for reactor physics, criticality and shielding calculations.

“These codes are now leased to users around the world,” he commented. Alan Knipe was also responsible for all the experimental validation of this state-of-the-art methodology, with many of these experiments forming part of major international collaborative programmes carried out with reactors in the UK, Europe and the USA. It is a matter of record that much of Dr. Knipe’s work created a benchmark for future studies, with a number of his own reports now established as international references within their fields.

“This was all very practical stuff,” said Alan. “I spent about 10 years designing and building reactor cores, building up fuel elements from tiny modules, taking the experimental reactors critical and carrying out detailed experimental programmes. These included accident studies and even mock-ups of Japan's Monju reactor, at the same time as we were developing a whole raft of new fast reactor technologies and studies of advanced heterogeneous fast reactor systems.”

During these first fifteen years as an experimental physicist Alan Knipe moved from his work on experimental fast reactors into research and development of thermal types. This included the Dimple research reactor at Winfrith which was based on fuel pins rather than plates and which used the internal water level for control. He describes this period as tremendously exciting.

“We produced mock-ups of fuel stores and reactor cores such as Sizewell B, with a lot of our later work concerned with validating life-extension technologies for methodologies involving the pressure vessel,” he commented.

Three-Mile Island

However, 1984 marked a significant turning-point, both within the nuclear power industry and for Dr Knipe, with Three-Mile Island in America casting a shadow which reached as far as Harwell. With an already-outstanding record in his field, Alan Knipe was selected as one of the members of an international team tasked with investigating and analysing the nuclear event under the International Severe Accident Programme initiated by the US government. As the visiting UK project scientist at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Dr Knipe spent three years living and working in the USA.

During this period he carried out detailed analysis and interpretation of the world's first TMI meltdown simulation experiment and was the lead author of the final NUREG test results report. He commented: “This was not just my first experience of living in the USA, but also of working within the private sector. The budgets were simply huge and we undertook to produce a thorough understanding of all the physics involved in the Three-Mile Island accident, taking a test reactor critical, then progressively removing the coolant.”

During the time he and his family lived in the USA, he recalls an interesting personal experience. “Our next-door neighbour where we lived in Idaho Falls was an extremely pleasant old chap who seemed to take quite an interest when I mentioned where I was working. This unassuming gentleman subsequently mentioned in passing that he too had been involved with the nuclear industry. One evening he invited us round for a meal, and while we were chatting, I noticed an interesting-looking photograph on the wall, which proved to be a picture of our neighbour with Enrico Fermi, no less!

“It turned out that he actually had worked with Fermi, cutting the graphite for the pile at the University of Chicago in 1942, the world's first-ever controlled fission reactor. It was obviously a tremendous privilege to meet someone who had been so closely involved with this historic project and I even have a piece of graphite from CP-1!”

The Commercial Years

On his return to the UK, Dr Knipe was appointed as a product business manager, one of a handful of senior people within the increasingly commercially orientated Atomic Energy Authority who were responsible for developing its business interests.

“Although I had no formal marketing training, I discovered rapidly that I seemed to have a knack in this direction and I got a terrific ‘buzz’ from dealing with customers and winning orders,” he noted.

In 1993 he became business development manager for reactor physics, criticality and shielding products in the reactor services division. He described how a customer in the form of the operators at Indian Point III in New York had a problem with damage to the pressure vessel.

“We had developed a system based on colour-change which would detect and measure this sort of problem, so I arranged to provide a fully packaged commercial system including installation, modelling and analysis. I gave a presentation in their offices in New York – and won a million dollar contract on the spot!”

The run-up to privatisation saw a change in emphasis with Dr Knipe taking an increasingly commercial role in a number of new business areas. He was responsible for the production of a full prospectus for his business, capable of being easily digested by non-technical people in the banks and leading financial institutions and was among the 21 general managers when AEA Technology was founded in 1996 as a public limited company. In 1998 the company reorganised into ten businesses, with Alan Knipe heading-up QSA, a new business acquired from Nycomed-Amersham. A market leader in process control, smoke detection and radiographic inspection products, QSA has become the company's first product-based manufacturing business.

Appointed Group MD of the £160 million Nuclear Technology business in April 2000, Alan Knipe's responsibilities now cover the global interests of this organisation. Formed from a consolidation of all AEA Technology's nuclear interests including nuclear engineering, nuclear science, consulting and QSA, the business employs 1700 people at Harwell, Culham, Risley, Dounreay, Winfrith, Windscale and Amersham in the UK with commercial and manufacturing bases in Germany, the USA, Hong Kong, France, Japan and China.

“These days I get to travel often and pretty widely,” says Alan.

Although around 75% of current business is in the nuclear power and defence markets, serving long-standing customers such as its former parent UKAEA as well as British Energy, BNFL and the MoD, a large and actively-growing sector is covered by products and services from QSA. Markets covered by this high-tech manufacturing arm of the business include radioactive products for medical, industrial, research, security, safety and environmental applications, with some 5000 customers in 80 countries.

Dr Knipe has already been instrumental in establishing a manufacturing joint venture in the Peoples Republic of China for the manufacture of alpha foil components for smoke detectors and he clearly regards QSA as driving future growth for the business.

“China is definitely the target market for smoke detectors, but there are many highly attractive new and emerging applications for our products, such as detectors for biological and chemical agents,” he affirms.

A Future in Medicine ?

“However, I believe that the future will tip increasingly towards the medical field – such as the development of ‘magic bullets’ for the treatment of cancer, an area attracting heavy investment central to our future manufacturing strategy and a target market for emerging high-technology products.”

Despite the potential solid future in most areas of nuclear engineering, the combination of what Alan Knipe refers to as a deep mistrust of the nuclear business in the UK and a completely flat market in power applications for the past five years, have resulted in poor overall financial performance.

This lack of growth potential has now forced the parent company to look to the progressive divestment of its nuclear power and defence activities.

“However, we plan to continue investing in the very exciting growth opportunities within QSA, which is at the forefront of new developments in medical radiation therapy,” enthuses Alan.

Associated with each of QSA's manufacturing operations in Europe, the USA and China are research and development centres of excellence, each with particular expertise and facilities. “We have an international team that can fast-track product development through parallel working at these centres,” explains Alan.

Two recent developments are now being commercialised for volume production. Major investment is going into establishing a pharmaceutical production plant for Yttrium-90 which, when linked to a suitable monoclonal antibody, can target cancerous cells. As far as Alan Knipe is concerned, this will also present an opportunity to exploit the high growth potential of some of the newest ventures, such as in pebble-bed reactor technology in South Africa as well as in product areas where QSA has established a clear lead.

These include further commercial development and expansion of the company's medical engineering applications, such as its advanced systems in cardiac surgery and radiation therapy. Here, the company has developed – and is currently marketing – a remarkable new treatment for restenosis in heart patients. A large, fully-automated production plant in Braunschweig, Germany, designed for large-scale production of the world’s smallest radioactive source for the treatment of restenosis in heart patients, is now also nearing completion. The plant will manufature sub-microscopic Strontium 90 capsules, which form the basis for this highly successful, non-surgical treatment.

“There are huge opportunities for the business to grow, especially in China and other expanding global economies,” says Dr Knipe. “There are going to be major challenges, but the general atmosphere is one of optimism and excitement – just like in the early days of nuclear power.”

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