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UK publishes long-term strategy for nuclear generation

29 March 2013

A nuclear energy-free future for the UK is not something the coalition "is thinking seriously about", the government's chief science adviser said on March 27 at the launch of the country's long-term nuclear strategy. The government said its nuclear strategy would help gain a significant slice in a £1 trillion global market and provide 40,000 UK jobs.

The UK Government's long-term nuclear generation strategy was launched by Business Secretary Vince Cable (pictured) and Energy Secretary Ed Davey
The UK Government's long-term nuclear generation strategy was launched by Business Secretary Vince Cable (pictured) and Energy Secretary Ed Davey

Prof Sir John Beddington, the government's chief scientific adviser, said new nuclear power was essential: "We really can't see a future for the UK energy sector, if we are to meet our climate change obligations and have resilience in the power sector, without a significant component of nuclear. A non-nuclear scenario is not one the government is thinking seriously about."

Beddington led a review of the nuclear research and development programme needed if the government's high-nuclear scenario for future energy is to be feasible. Prof David Mackay, chief scientific adviser at the department of energy and climate change, said this scenario – one of four set out in the 2011 carbon plan – envisaged 75GW of nuclear capacity in 2050 providing 86% of the UK's electricity, a situation he compared to France today. 

The industrial strategy, developed by government and industry, covers the whole of the nuclear market – new build, waste management and decommissioning, fuel cycle services, operations and maintenance.

It follows the recent launch of the aerospace strategy and is the next step in the government’s industrial strategy. A plan for oil and gas was published on March 28 and strategies for all eleven key sectors will be completed in the coming months to secure sustainable future growth in the economy.

Over the next two decades it is forecast that globally there will be £930 billion investment in building new reactors and £250 billion in decommissioning those that are coming off line. The nuclear industrial strategy sets out the basis for a long-term partnership between government and industry to exploit those opportunities.

The strategy is being overseen by a Nuclear Industry Council, co-chaired by ministers and industry. It includes a wide range of commitments, including:

* Investing £15 million in a new world class National Nuclear Users Facility for universities and companies carrying out research into nuclear technology. The facility will have centres at the National Nuclear Laboratory at Sellafield, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire and the University of Manchester’s Dalton Cumbrian Facility.

* Providing 36 nuclear research and development projects £18 million worth of support from a Technology Strategy Board competition, which will leverage in a further £13 million of private sector investment. This includes consortium lead by OC Robotics in Bristol who have received almost £6 million to develop their LaserSnake technology – a robot controlled laser cutting tool that can be used as part of nuclear decommissioning projects.

* Investing £12.5 million to join the Jules Horowitz Test Reactor programme which is being constructed in France. The reactor will provide the UK with a valuable radiation testing facility to develop future advanced nuclear fuels.

* Spending £66 million in 2011 on nuclear research and development and exploring opportunities to back future reactor designs, including the feasibility of launching a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) R&D programme to ensure that the UK is a key partner of any new reactor design for the global market.

* Making changes to the role and organisation of the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) so that it plays a more central role in advising government on nuclear matters and in strategic research projects.

* Examining new technologies including thorium reactors, which cannot melt down, and fast reactors, which can be fuelled by waste plutonium.

* A focus on training the next generation of nuclear engineers, as 70% of current senior staff are due to retire in the next 10 years.

Nuclear new build in the UK is forecast to generate up to 40,000 jobs in the sector at its peak, but employers are currently reporting skills shortages – particularly in engineering. Tackling the skills gaps will be one of the actions to be taken forward through a focussed Skills Delivery Plan led by the Nuclear Energy Skills Alliance.

UKTI will develop a strategy aimed at attracting inward investment as well as promoting export opportunities.

The results of a major review into research and development capability in the UK have also been published today. The review has helped to shape the industrial strategy and was carried out by government, industry and academia, assisted by an Advisory Board chaired by Sir John Beddington, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. It was instigated in response to a House of Lords inquiry.

The Board’s recommendations recognise that nuclear power will continue to play an important role in the UK to 2050 and beyond and that a wide range of technologies may be required to meet the challenges of an expanded demand for nuclear power. Therefore, the Board recommended concrete action in a number of areas to ensure that technological options for nuclear power generation are kept open in the future. The industrial strategy forms a major part of the government’s response to these recommendations.

Business Secretary Vince Cable said:

“The nuclear industry presents significant multi billion pound long-term opportunities for UK companies and for thousands of high value jobs. We have worked with industry on a plan for the future to ensure we are well placed to grasp those opportunities.

“We have some of the finest workers, research facilities and academics in the world. But we need to sharpen those competitive advantages to become a top table nuclear nation.”

Energy Secretary Edward Davey said:

“Nuclear and other forms of low carbon power mean highly-skilled jobs, sustainable growth, and the lasting legacy of a UK supply chain.

“We need all our energy options in play in the fight against climate change, and to keep the lights on in a way that is affordable to consumers. Not just this decade, but to 2050 and beyond.”

Sir John Beddington, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor said:

“I am convinced that nuclear power will play a pivotal role in the UK’s energy future. The requirement for nuclear power may exceed current plans for new build, perhaps substantially. It’s therefore crucial that we keep a wide range of technological options open so that we are able to meet this potential demand in a safe and sustainable manner. Today’s announcements on R&D and on skills are the first steps in doing exactly that.

“One of the conclusions of my work last year was that important research in the UK could be hindered through lack of access to the right facilities. I am therefore delighted that significant funding has been allocated today to provide those facilities in the future.

“The sector strategy is a key component of the government’s work on industrial strategy. The aim is to give businesses, investors and the public greater long-term certainty and to maximise the opportunities for creating growth and new jobs.”

Planning consent was given last week for construction of the first new nuclear power station in the UK since 1995. The planned multi-billion pound project at Hinkley Point, Somerset – to be operated by EDF Energy subsidiary NNB Generation – which will be one of the largest power stations in the UK.

The government is in the middle of tense negotiations with EDF over the guaranteed price it will receive for electricity from the two planned reactors at Hinkley.

DECC chief scientific adviser Prof David Mackay said the government would be committed to future nuclear power even if the EDF deal fell through.

Mackay alluded to the enormous projected cost of the EDF reactors, when describing the attraction of small modular reactors, currently being developed in the US. "One reason for interest in them is that they are easier to finance than the large reactors we have now, so they may be more attractive to the economy," he said. 

Mackay said the approach to dealing with the UK's 100 tonne stockpile of plutonium was changing from a heavy focus on the mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) approach, a programme which has suffered costly failuresin the past, to include consideration of advanced "fast" reactors, which can consume plutonium.

As regards nuclear waste disposal, the government suffered a serious setback in January when Cumbria County Council rejected a proposal to host a deep geological disposal site. The government had said previously that a permanent waste solution should be in place before new reactors were built.

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