Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities - Science and Technology Committee Contents



The context of this inquiry is the Government's commitment to delivering a mixture of energy sources that will provide a secure, affordable, low-carbon supply of electricity for the future. The Government have said that nuclear energy will play an important role in achieving these goals. Nuclear energy currently supplies 16%[1] of the UK's electricity (10-12 gigawatts (GW) of capacity[2]). Scenarios for future electricity generation suggest that between now and 2050 nuclear power could supply between 15% and 49% (12 and 38 GW[3]) of the total. To meet the UK's legally binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 it is likely that between 20 and 38 GW of nuclear power will be needed.

Focus of our inquiry

The focus of our inquiry was not on the arguments for or against nuclear energy; but on whether or not the Government are doing enough to maintain and develop UK nuclear research and development (R&D) capabilities, and the associated expertise to ensure that nuclear energy is a viable option for the future. We have concluded that they are not. The absence of leadership and strategic thinking in Government in this area has resulted in a lack of co-ordination of nuclear R&D activities and a perception amongst international partners that the UK is no longer a serious player in the field. There is also a failure to recognise that although, at present, the UK has a number of strengths in nuclear R&D and expertise, those strengths are built on past investments and will soon be depleted as many experts near the end of their careers.

The need for fundamental change

During our inquiry we were struck by the extraordinary discrepancy between the view, on the one hand, of some senior government officials and the Secretary of State, and on the other, those of independent experts from academia, industry, nuclear agencies, the regulator and the Government's own advisers. A fundamental change in the Government's approach to nuclear R&D is needed now to address the complacency which permeates their vision of how the UK's energy needs will be met in the future. We make a number of recommendations for the Government to take action to ensure that this change takes place.

Policy development, an R&D roadmap and R&D Board

Some of our recommendations are intended to bring about high-level changes in the Government's approach to policy development for nuclear. These include:

  • the development of a long-term strategy for nuclear energy;
  • the development, as part of that strategy, of a nuclear R&D roadmap;
  • the establishment of an independent Nuclear R&D Board, made up of representatives from the Government, industry and academia, chaired by an independent, expert, authoritative Chairman.

A long-term nuclear energy strategy

According to the Government, the UK's future supply of nuclear energy will be determined by the market. Other evidence indicates that, although electricity market reform may deliver the necessary incentives in the period up to 2025, in the longer term it will not be enough to maintain the necessary nuclear R&D capabilities and associated expertise. The nuclear industry, Government and the regulator rely on the research base to help to train the next generation of experts and, once lost, these capabilities will not easily be replaced. For this reason, the Government need to set out a long-term nuclear strategy which will, in particular, explain how they intend to maintain the nuclear R&D capabilities and associated expertise required to keep the nuclear energy option available into the future.

Furthermore, without a long-term strategy, companies will have little incentive to invest in longer-term nuclear R&D in the UK. As a result, the UK will be in a poor position to take advantage of the very large global commercial opportunities that nuclear R&D could provide. With appropriate Government investment in nuclear research and by developing a new generation of experts, UK companies could capture a significant part of the global market.

A nuclear R&D roadmap

The nuclear long-term strategy should include development of a nuclear R&D roadmap which would, in particular, make provision for closing gaps in UK nuclear R&D capabilities, such as: facilities to carry out research on post-irradiated materials, research on deep geological disposal, on the disposition of the plutonium stockpile, on advanced fuel recycling and reprocessing, and on Generation IV technologies. The roadmap should also aim to establish the UK as a credible partner for international collaboration, including a commitment by the Government to resume active participation in the Generation IV Forum and to ensure that the internationally important Phase 3 facilities at the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) are commissioned.

An independent Nuclear R&D Board

To assist the Government in the development and implementation of the long-term strategy and the R&D roadmap, we recommend the establishment of a Nuclear R&D Board. To ensure its independence, we propose that the new Board should be set up as a statutory Non-Departmental Public Body (and, pending the necessary legislation, as an Executive Agency), led by an externally-appointed, expert, authoritative Chairman. In addition to advising the Government, the Board would monitor, and report on, the Government's progress with regard to the strategy and the roadmap. It would have an R&D budget.

We also envisage the Board having a co-ordinating function to remedy the fact that the present arrangement for the support of nuclear R&D and training is haphazard, with the activities of the various organisations involved in nuclear research determined by their own narrow remits with, no single, overarching body responsible for aligning them into a coherent programme that meets national needs. The Board should also be charged with: examining mechanisms to ensure that the UK is able to take a central role in international nuclear research collaborations and signal to the international research community that the UK is a credible and willing partner for such collaborations, assist in the commercial exploitation of nuclear research and play a role in public engagement, recognising that the public acceptability of nuclear power will be a crucial factor in determining its future use.

Who pays?

The Department for Energy and Climate Change seem determined to relinquish any responsibility for funding, or helping to secure funding, to maintain nuclear R&D capabilities and associated expertise in the UK. In our view, the Government, along with all other beneficiaries of nuclear R&D (particularly industry), should ensure that there is adequate funding to support the nuclear R&D roadmap. Without an increase in funding for fission research in the order of £20-50 million a year, the Government's intention that nuclear should play a part in meeting the UK's future energy needs simply lacks credibility. This is a small sum—equal to around 1% of the annual spend of £2.8 billion on decommissioning the UK's legacy waste—and compared with £90 million a year spent on the highly successful programme of fusion research.

Responsibility for specific types of nuclear R&D capability

The current arrangement of organisations that carry out, or commission, nuclear research do not make the most effective use of existing facilities and expertise. We recommend that the role of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in handling, and commissioning research on, waste from new power stations should be clarified, and that the Government should determine which body should have responsibility for R&D in advanced fuel recycling and reprocessing to ensure that these capabilities are not lost. We also recommend that the current, very short-term, contract for the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) should be extended and that NNL should be charged, under the direction of the Board, with carrying out applied research relevant to long-term strategic needs in partnership with academia, other laboratories and industry.

1   UK Energy in Brief 2011, DECC, 2011. (Figures for 2010) Back

2   The final output for 2011 will be dependent on plant closures throughout the year (see Nuclear Fission, The Energy Research Partnership, September 2010 ("the ERP Report") p 8-9) Back

3   The percentages of electricity supplied from the nuclear GW capacity is heavily dependent on the energy scenario used to project future supply and demand, these percentages should therefore be regarded only as an indication of the range of contributions that nuclear could supply to the overall electricity portfolio. (see Box 2, page 27.) Back

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