The undoubted potential of civil nuclear has been blighted by the indecision of successive Governments. Now, within the context of the industrial strategy and amid the challenges of Brexit, it is critical for the Government to set out a decisive future for this industry.
The UK has long-standing and continuing commitments to civil nuclear energy. There are nuclear wastes to be managed, substantial decommissioning projects are underway and the decision has been made to replace the existing ageing fleet of civil reactors. However, we have reached a critical moment for the future of the United Kingdom as a serious nuclear nation. The UK is strategically positioned to capture coming opportunities, including the development of small modular reactors, but in order to make the most of these opportunities the Government must act now to provide underpinning strategic support to the nuclear industry. We have found that successive Governments’ delays in taking civil nuclear policy decisions has seriously damaged the UK industry’s potential ability both in the short and longer terms to contribute effectively to whatever national policies might ultimately be favoured.
The decision the Government must make is whether the UK should be a designer, manufacturer and operator of nuclear generation technology or alternatively whether it should restrict its interest to being an operator of equipment supplied by others from overseas. We urge the Government to take a clear and firm view. Not making a timely decision could have serious consequences.
Once the Government has made this overarching decision, other strategic decisions will flow from this to define a clear set of objectives and timescales with which the UK nuclear industry can align itself through a revitalised nuclear industry council. If the Government were to decide that the UK should be a designer and manufacturer in nuclear fission, then the following would be the minimum steps needed to achieve this:
The Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) fulfilled a useful role and a successor body is urgently needed to ensure that best value is achieved from UK investment in nuclear R&D. The previously announced five year programme of £250 million for civil nuclear research should be allocated for research programmes judged to be of appropriate quality and relevance.
Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) appear likely to be globally important for the future of nuclear energy. Currently SMRs for defence applications is an area of UK technical excellence. In the absence of any clear world market leader the UK has the experience and expertise to seize the opportunity to re-enter the market as a designer and manufacturer of SMRs. However the limited size of the domestic market for SMRs and the potential for cost reduction make it desirable that this should be a joint venture with a foreign partner. With this in mind the outcome of the Government competition on SMRs should be published without delay. Deferring a decision on SMRs amounts to forgoing an opportunity that is unlikely to occur again. The Government’s failure to make a decision on its strategy for SMRs is a prime example of its inaction in the civil nuclear arena. Not keeping to the stated timetable for the competition has had a negative effect on the nuclear sector in the UK and if the Government does not act soon the necessary high level of industrial interest will not be maintained.
The National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) is well-placed to be a source of independent advice to the Government and to support research and development in the UK nuclear sector. To do this properly, it will require dedicated core funding. Whilst acknowledging the current climate of financial restraint, we urge the Government to give early consideration to providing modest funding to the NNL, similar in magnitude to that provided to other UK national laboratories.
The Government has announced that when the UK leaves the European Union, it will also leave Euratom. The Government should immediately convene a working group of industry and government representatives to develop a plan to preserve the essential benefits of Euratom membership, which fits into the Government policy to collaborate in science and technology in Europe and elsewhere.
There is a real urgency for Government action on this and we recognise that the Government is devoting significant resources to maintaining and, potentially, even enhancing some of the benefits that we currently achieve from Euratom membership. The UK’s membership of Euratom must not be allowed to expire without a suitable replacement being in place. Such an eventuality would put the UK at risk of losing its lead in fusion research and in effect throw away decades of research. Furthermore it would put the UK at risk of losing access to the markets and skills it needs to construct new nuclear power plants and may leave existing power plants unable to acquire fuel.