Guest Article: UK nuclear policy – R&D and innovation must be part of the mix

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Stephen Tindale is Director and Suzanna Hinson Policy Officer at Weinberg Next Nuclear

Website: www.the-weinberg-foundation.org | Twitter: @aw_nextnuclear


The future of nuclear power in the UK is looking rather bleak. Once the world leader in nuclear energy, opening the first power station in 1956, Britain has not now built a nuclear reactor in over 20 years. The Hinkley proposal is neither the best nor even now a very likely contender to break this trend of stagnation.

But the UK needs new nuclear. With climate and environmental threats making the closure of existing coal power plants imperative, and existing nuclear plants approaching the end of their operative lives, there is an imminent and significant gap to fill in energy supply. The same threats mean that new energy capacity must be low polluting, both in terms of carbon and air quality. Nuclear power provided almost 20% of the UK’s electricity in 2013 and almost 55% of the UK’s low carbon energy. Although many technologies could and should be used to fill the requirement for new, clean energy, nuclear must continue to be amongst the mix, to provide both base-load power and industrial scale heat.

It is therefore essential that the UK does not give up on nuclear power. The European Pressurised Reactor design, proposed for Hinkley, is experiencing problems where it is being built in France and Finland and, to a lesser extent, China. Other generation III reactor designs are less complex, so less problematic to build. The Advanced Boiling Water Reactor design, proposed for Wylfa, has been built on time and on budget in Japan. The AP1000 design, proposed for Moorside in Cumbria, is due to have its first unit operating in China next year, with the USA and India also pursuing this promising design.

Looking forward, the next-generation of advanced nuclear reactors could be even safer, as well as cheaper and quicker to build. However, most advanced reactor designs have not yet been built and demonstrated, so are not yet ready for commercialisation. Nuclear regulation in the UK is rightly strict and extensive, but a lack of capacity in the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has meant that it has also been a barrier to progress with new designs. Increasing capacity, which ONR has committed to doing, could help new reactors pass through the process more swiftly. In the meantime, new plants using existing reactor designs are needed as ‘nuclear bridge technologies’, so that nuclear’s contribution to Britain’s low-carbon energy supply does not diminish.

To reach the other side of this nuclear bridge, research and development is essential, as former Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd accepted by saying:  “Let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t have all the answers to decarbonisation today. We must develop technologies that are both cheap and green. This means unleashing innovation“.

At Weinberg Next Nuclear, we are dedicated to delivering a safe, secure and sustainable nuclear future. In 2015, we published a report on the need for nuclear innovation. Following the publication of this report, the government supported Rudd’s encouraging words with action. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne promised, in his 2015 Autumn Statement, £250 million over five years for nuclear research and development. Then, in the March 2016 Budget, Osborne announced a £30 million competition for advanced manufacturing in small modular reactors (SMRs). Because these can be mass produced, they can be built much more quickly and cheaply than today’s designs.

An electricity system with a high proportion of intermittent wind and solar power will need reliable supply that can load follow. Back up is needed to keep the lights on at peak times if it is not windy or sunny. Existing, large scale nuclear cannot provide this efficiently and effectively. SMRs are better suited to this role, because individual modules can be switched on or off as necessary.

In April 2016, we published a follow up report on how the £30 million should be spent and what the next steps for nuclear innovation should be. The report outlines criteria which government should use in selecting reactor designs to support (but does not say which designs should be chosen), and recommends that at least one of the reactors supported should be a Generation IV design. Such reactors could re-use spent nuclear fuel, and also use plutonium for fuel as the UK has the largest plutonium stockpile in the world. Furthermore, instead of having layers of safety added to an old design, advanced reactors are designed from the start to be inherently safe, further reducing cost, and potentially increasing public support.

International work towards advanced nuclear is significant. There are now new leaders on nuclear power and the UK could learn a lot from progress being achieved elsewhere. Obama’s GAIN initiative in the USA and Trudeau’s approach in Canada should inspire the UK. Working together with these other innovating nations, especially through the coordination of regulations, would improve the progress of advanced nuclear, not just in the UK but globally.

Nuclear power is an important part of the answer to the climate challenge. But it is not the whole answer. The UK should promote all the low-carbon supply options, and energy efficiency; the challenge is too great to pick and choose between them. The energy security, social and climate benefits would justify the expenditure. Weinberg Next Nuclear will continue to work with like-minded organisations such as New Nuclear Watch Europe (NNWE), to promote a clean energy mix and ensure a bright future for the UK.