Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


INNOVATION IN NUCLEAR FISSION

163. Nuclear power accounted for around 23% of UK electricity generation in 2001. It produces no greenhouse gas emissions and therefore, compared with the rest of the generation sector, plays a significant role in helping the UK meet its emission targets. Generation is expected to peak in 2005 (around 25% of electricity supplied). In 2025, only 1 of the 16 existing nuclear stations will be left (Sizewell B) unless new reactors are built. Publicly funded research into fission reactors mirrors this decline and began to decline with the privatisation of the electricity sector in 1990-91. In 1989-90 the Department of Energy (later amalgamated with the DTI) invested £164 million in nuclear research but this has decreased to almost zero. DEFRA continues to fund safety and storage research.[279] BNFL calculates that in 1974 around £500,000 (at 2000 prices) was spent by the Government on nuclear RD&D.[280] There has also been a significant decline in university-based-fission—related research over the same period. EPSRC is currently the largest sponsor of fission-related RD&D with commitment for areas such as materials research of approximately £350,000 per annum, although BNFL considers this to be in "specialised or niche areas of little relevance to industry".[281] This decline in public RD&D funding is also reflected in the private sector: while Nuclear Electric spent £116 million on RD&D in 1989, British Energy and BNFL combined spent £115 million in 1999-2000, representing a considerable reduction in real terms.

164. Perhaps not surprisingly, the withdrawal of Government support for nuclear RD&D is not welcomed by BNFL, who argue that Government is relying too much on the industry. It argues that when BNFL was set up in 1971 it was envisaged that UKAEA would "continue to underpin the UK's nuclear science base". Yet UKAEA research centres at Harwell and Winfrith have been run down and the AEA Technologies, a part privatisation of UKAEA, has withdrawn from nuclear research.[282] The British Nuclear Energy Society is concerned that there is no coherent research strategy in nuclear fission.[283] The situation is not welcomed by Professor Bill Lee from the University of Sheffield, who is concerned that those researching in the nuclear field are almost all employed by BNFL and British Energy. He feels that these scientists may have a conflict between commercial interests and the long-term plans for the disposal of waste and that there is limited communication between nuclear research teams.[284]

New reactor technologies

165. There is currently no Government funding into new reactor technologies and little takes place in the UK (BNFL spent £1 million, out of its total 2001-02 RD&D budget of £113 million, on reactor research). The UK does have a stake in reactor RD&D following the purchase by BNFL of the US company Westinghouse and as a member, along with British Energy, of the Generation IV consortium (see below). British Energy ceased RD&D into future nuclear systems in the mid-1990s.[285]

166. BNFL argues that research into future nuclear systems is the only area of energy research that Government does not fund. The ERRG indeed made clear that "Research into the development of any new reactor designs should be chiefly a matter for the industry".We note the report's use of the word "chiefly" since as far as we can tell the Government's position is that nuclear systems research is exclusively a matter for industry.

167. The US Department of Energy set up an initiative known as Generation IV at the end of 2000 to consider future nuclear energy systems that could be deployed by 2030. The Generation-IV International Forum was set up in July 2001 comprising nine countries with interests in the future of nuclear energy RD&D. Governments, industry and the research community are represented at the Forum. The aim is to develop reactor designs that are safe, economical, proliferation-resistant and produce minimal waste. The UK, through the DTI, is a member of the Forum but while the US has spent £9 million to fund American participants, the DTI left it to the UK participants (BNFL, British Energy and NNC) to fund their own involvement. As a result, BE has decided to leave and NNC may soon follow. BNFL argues that UK participation in Generation IV is important "to assure access to future energy options, while sharing the costs with the international community".[286] The Minister for Energy and Construction, Brian Wilson, said in a Written Answer on 3 December 2002 that "the framework for international research under the Generation IV initiative has yet to be put in place and the extent of any UK financial commitment to research has yet to be decided".[287] For the Government to keep the nuclear option open, participation in the Generation IV Forum is essential to give the UK a stake in the direction of future technologies. We recommend that provision is made for British companies to participate actively.

168. Mr Kevin Routledge, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of NNC, claims that the UK Government's lack of investment in fission RD&D weakens its position. "I think it is fundamental that the UK Government makes some level of investment so that they can talk to other governments who are spending quite a lot more money and leverage that opportunity". He suggested that £10 million should be the starting figure.[288] Dr Sue Ion of BNFL felt that half of this could be spent domestically on to keep skills and capabilities in the programmes with the remaining £5 million contributing towards the international programmes.[289]

169. We were interested to learn of the progress in the development of the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR). The technology was developed initially in Germany in the 1950s but an accident at a reactor and the deployment of light water reactors hampered further progress. Interest in the technology has increased recently with research being undertaken in South Africa. In May 2000, BNFL made a "substantial" investment in the technology (it has a 22.5% stake[290]) and it expects PBMRs "to be the safest, cleanest and most efficient nuclear power source option for the future".[291] The PBMR website forecasts commercial operation in 2006 although BNFL feels that it will not become a viable product until the next decade. We applaud BNFL's investment in pebble bed reactors and the long-term view it is taking of reactor technologies in an uncertain climate. We will watch the development of the technology with interest.

170. New reactor designs are already available. Dr Ion told us of BNFL's interest in deploying the AP1000 in the UK, a form of light water reactor, to generate 10 GW. The AP1000 is still at the design stage but the design has been licensed. BNFL argue that the costs and waste associated with the AP1000 are such that they would become economically viable if the market conditions improved. It is undeniable that public opinion is a major obstacle to new nuclear build but this should not preclude the funding of research which could go a long way to addressing public concerns into the waste and safety of existing systems. We believe that the Government should not underestimate the public's pragmatism and should not be afraid of people's ability to balance its legitimate concerns with the great dangers posed by climate change.

171. An obstacle to any future nuclear build is economics. With electricity suppliers currently selling at 1.6p/kW and with 20% overcapacity in the market, no company is considering building new generation, but the problems with British Energy and BNFL are particularly serious. For new nuclear systems technologies to make it to the marketplace, companies need to have some confidence about the long-term market conditions. Indeed, this is vital if private investment is forthcoming in any new energy technologies.

Existing reactor technologies

172. The UK's nuclear generators BNFL and British Energy conduct research into improving the efficiency, functioning and longevity of reactors, and in the latter's case, the £19 million that the company spends represents almost all of its RD&D budget. This work is valuable but it is a largely a short to medium term commercial issue for the companies concerned.

Safety and storage

173. The Health and Safety Executive administers nuclear safety research programmes of around £8 million per annum, which is funded by a levy on the nuclear generators.[292] There is concern that this fund may become under threat as the nuclear reactors are closed.[293] DEFRA spends around £700,000 on research into the safe handling and storage of radioactive wastes and the Department of Health funds research into the health effects of exposure to man-made and naturally occurring radiation.[294] The UK Government also contributes around £4.5 million a year to the Euratom budget for research into radiation protection, waste management and plant life management and safety.

174. Nuclear safety and storage research was undertaken in the past principally by BNFL, UKAEA and Nirex. Nirex, which was was set up in the early 1980s by the nuclear industry, with the agreement of the Government, to examine safe, environmental and economic aspects of deep geological disposal of radioactive waste, spent around £8,5 million on research in 2001-02.[295] In July 2002 the Government announced the formation of the Liabilities Management Authority as an NDPB, which will relieve the industry of its historic waste liabilities.[296] The LMA will play a strategic role in dealing with the nuclear waste legacy and as such will oversee the research being undertaken by BNFL and UKAEA and ensure coordination with DEFRA and the Health and Safety Executive. It will fund research itself into technology which improves safety and reduces environmental impact, timescales and costs. For example, improvements in vitrification and cementation technology could make the immobilisation of wastes easier, faster and cheaper. The ERRG report recommended nuclear waste research as a priority area and the high-level group set up by Sir David King will work with the LMA in taking this forward.[297]

175. The Institute of Physics and the Institution of Electrical Engineers have raised the possibility of the transmutation of nuclear waste. Waste plutonium could be "burnt" in a fast reactor or in a specialised accelerator facility.[298] Transmutation converts long-lived radioactive elements to shorter-lived ones, decreasing the long-term problems of nuclear waste storage from thousands of years to perhaps decades. The technology has its problems in that it will not work with all radioactive elements, large amounts of waste will still result and there are issues concerning nuclear proliferation. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee considered the technology in its report on the Management of Nuclear Waste in 1999 and concluded that the time to deployment meant that it could not be considered as a solution to current waste problems.[299] Nevertheless, we recommend that the Government monitor technological developments in transmutation and keep it under review as part of its radioactive waste management strategy.

176. BNFL says that the next generation of fission reactors, such as the AP1000, will create far less waste than their predecessors. Dr Robin Clegg of BNFL told us "If we were to replace the current nuclear generating capacity with new nuclear technology and to run that technology for its design life, for 25 to 40 years, and generate 20 to 25 per cent of the UK's electricity from that ... this new technology would only add ten per cent to the volumes which we have got already".[300] If this can be independently verified then the waste issue cannot be used as an argument against further nuclear build.

177. Greenpeace argues that allowing new nuclear reactors to be built will weaken the impetus to introduce renewable forms of energy generation. This is a risk, but the risk of failing to reduce our carbon emissions is also great. In our view the only strong grounds for the Government to oppose any new build by BNFL or British Energy is that the companies are not on a sure enough financial footing to be able to guarantee safe operation for the lifetime of the reactors. The ability of BNFL and British Energy to compete successfully in the market depends on the Government. It is right that nuclear generators bear the external costs of their generation but it is must remembered why we are discussing this subject at all. It is largely because the use of fossil fuels for energy has started to have a dangerous effect on global climate. CO2 should be seen as waste and the Climate Change Levy barely begins to account for the external costs of dealing with it. It is hard to imagine that the nuclear legacy will ever be as serious as global climate change.

178. The PIU report argued that the nuclear option must be kept open.[301] According to Mr Adrian Ham from the British Nuclear Industry Forum, the option is not open at present.[302] The Government's Energy White Paper agrees that the nuclear option should remain but only just. It says:

"While nuclear power is currently an important source of carbon-free electricity, the current economics of nuclear power make it an unattractive option for new generating capacity and there are also important issues for nuclear waste to be resolved. This White Paper does not contain proposals for building new nuclear power stations. However, we do not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets. Before any decision to proceed with the building of new nuclear power stations, there would need to be the fullest public consultation and the publication of a White Paper setting out the Government's proposals."[303]

The implication is that in a couple of years' time the Government will look at the progress being made towards the 10% renewables target. If progress is slow then, it will then reconsider nuclear. It is clear from our evidence that the 10% target is unlikely and we see nothing in the White Paper to suggest that progress will be speeded up dramatically. The Government's announcement that new nuclear build would require another public consultation and another White Paper is perplexing. The Government says with great pride that this is "the most significant consultation on energy policy ever carried out in the UK".[304] There would have been no shortage of views expressed on the nuclear issue and unless the situation changes substantially, which seems unlikely, a further consultation would simply involve the same people repeating the same arguments. 179. The nuclear industry faces a continuing decline unless positive steps are made now. The only way to keep the nuclear option open is for the Government to indicate that it would in have no objection in principle to granting permission for new reactors to be built, even on a modest scale, to send a clear message that the technology has a future. It should benefit from its status as a carbon-free source of energy.

180. The next generation of fission reactors is likely to be the last. Nuclear fission power should be used to keep the UK's CO2 emissions as low as possible until fusion power and other non-carbon technologies are commercially available.


279   Ev 112 Back

280   Ev 46 Back

281   Ev 47 Back

282   Ev 9,11,46 Back

283   Ev 10 Back

284   Ev 1 Back

285   Ev 47 Back

286   Ev 52-53 Back

287   HC Deb, 3 December, col 688W Back

288   Qq 336-338 Back

289   Q 339 Back

290   www.pbmr.com. The other partners are Eskom (30%), Exelon (12.5%), and the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa (25%). The remaining 10% is reserved for black empowerment investment. Back

291   www.bnfl.co.uk Back

292   Ev 47 Back

293   Ev 9 Back

294   Ev 112 Back

295   Ev 13 Back

296   DTI, Managing the Nuclear Legacy: A strategy for action, July 2002, cm 5552 Back

297   As above, paras 3.36-3.40 Back

298   Ev 15, 23 Back

299   House of Lords Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, session 1989-99, HL Paper 26 Management of Nuclear Waste, paras 3.10-3.11 Back

300   Q 358 Back

301   Performance and Innovation Unit, The Energy Review, February 2002, para 7.78 Back

302   Q 387 Back

303   DTI, Our energy future-creating a low carbon future, Cm 5761, February 2003, para 4.68 Back

304   DTI press release 24 February 2003 Back


 
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