Nuclear research and technology: Breaking the cycle of indecision Contents

Chapter 2: UK civil nuclear research and development

13.This chapter analyses the evidence we received on the co-ordination of civil nuclear R&D in the UK.

14.The UK conducts research and development in nuclear energy although the level of expenditure is low by comparison with other countries (see Figure 1), particularly those that generate nuclear power. As a minimum requirement any country with significant nuclear interests should have a sufficient level of indigenous nuclear technological competence to ensure responsible stewardship of existing nuclear assets and liabilities.

Figure 1: Public funding of nuclear R&D for OECD countries 2011 and 2013

Bar chart

Source: NIRAB, The UK civil nuclear R&D landscape survey (February 2017): [accessed 24 April 2017]

15.In the UK development, as distinct from research, is largely associated with the technology of decommissioning old nuclear sites and with the long term future development of fusion power.

16.In the UK nuclear R&D is carried out by four groups:

17.The UK nuclear industry, including research, is highly regulated. Nuclear sites are principally regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) for nuclear safety and by the Environment Agency for environmental protection. There is some overlap between these regulatory regimes, particularly around the regulation of radioactive waste. These organisations share the joint mission of delivering effective and efficient regulation of the nuclear industry in England and Wales.

Coordination of UK R&D

18.In its 2011 report Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities the Committee recommended that the Government should set out a long-term strategy for nuclear energy and set up an independent Nuclear R&D board as a statutory Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB).14 The board would advise the Government and monitor (and report on) the Government’s progress against a nuclear research road-map. Instead of accepting this recommendation the Government established the NIRAB in January 2014. NIRAB was set up as a temporary advisory board for a period of three years under the chairmanship of Dame Sue Ion. NIRAB’s role was to advise the Government on how to ensure that nuclear innovation and R&D would keep future energy options open and enable both domestic and international commercial opportunities to be realised by the UK. NIRAB was supported by a technical secretariat, the Nuclear Innovation and Research Office (NIRO). NIRO was hosted by the NNL and staffed by secondees from NNL and industry. NIRAB’s term ended in December 2016.

19.Our evidence showed that, within its terms of reference, NIRAB was widely regarded as a success.15 EDF Energy told us that “recommendations issued in 2016 present a comprehensive and prioritised programme of R&D that represents the view of the whole UK Nuclear community”.16

20.However, this was not a universal opinion. The multinational engineering and project management consultancy, AMEC Foster Wheeler, said that because NIRAB (and NIRO) was reliant on the NNL to provide staff, it presented a distorted view of what the UK nuclear industry needs to do.17 NSG Environmental Ltd, a company providing specialist R&D services to the nuclear industry, told us that they had no engagement with NIRAB and that the role of small and medium-sized enterprises in nuclear R&D was not adequately considered.18 It would therefore appear that whilst there are many small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK supporting all aspects of the nuclear industry, home and abroad, they are not afforded an adequate collective voice or opportunity to contribute substantially to the future shape of the industry.

21.John Donald, Superintending Inspector, ONR, told us that NIRAB did a good job within its terms of reference but that these did not include responsibility for full co-ordination of UK civil nuclear research. Furthermore he said it helped “produce collaboration but it was not constituted to really develop co-ordination or international co-ordination”.19

22.NIRAB published its final report containing recommendations (see Box 1) for the Government on the future of UK nuclear R&D in February 2017.20 The final report also showed which recommendations from NIRAB’s 2014 and 2015 reports had been addressed by the Government. Out of a total of 38 recommendations made in 2014, seven have been fully addressed and 18 have been partially addressed. The remaining 13 are outstanding. Of the eight recommendations made in the 2015 report one has been fully addressed and three have been partially addressed.21

Box 1: NIRAB final recommendations for the Government

(1)Government should commission without further delay the first stages of the programme recommended by NIRAB and subsequently deliver on its commitment to fund at least £250m for an ambitious nuclear R&D programme over this spending review period.

(2)Government should put in place arrangements to integrate and review the output of publicly funded civil nuclear research programmes.

(3)Government should implement a transparent and effective mechanism to coordinate and, where necessary, direct, all publicly funded nuclear R&D activities in order to achieve the desired industrial impact and maximise value for money.

(4)Government should put in place arrangements to retain access to independent expert advice on nuclear research and innovation to inform policy decisions in this area.

(5)Government should periodically commission updates of the civil nuclear R&D landscape as a means of monitoring the health of the landscape and the effectiveness of Government interventions.

(6)Existing nuclear R&D programmes funded by Research Councils UK, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Innovate UK should continue at no lower than current levels.

(7)Government should develop a plan to resume active membership of the Generation IV International Forum.

(8)Government should develop and implement a comprehensive and coordinated international collaboration strategy for nuclear research and innovation to enable research to be implemented to greatest effect.

(9)Government should assess the potential impact of the UK exiting the European Union on nuclear innovation and research activity and mitigate accordingly.

(10)Government should make clear its aims for SMR development in the UK, ensuring that these are used in evaluating the SMR competition. It will be important there is continued alignment of the wider underpinning research programmes with SMR priorities and that a strategic direction is maintained.

Source: NIRAB, Final Report 2014 to 2016 (February 2017): [accessed 16 March 2017]

Future funding and coordination of Nuclear R&D

23.The evidence we received made it clear that, particularly given the number of public bodies involved in nuclear R&D (see paragraph 16), a successor body to NIRAB, with a co-ordinating role, is necessary.22

24.Bristol University, on behalf of the South West Nuclear Hub, explained that, with the cessation of NIRAB, “there is presently no effective oversight or sufficient coordination of the whole UK activity in nuclear engineering, science and technology, and a suitable replacement should be instituted as a matter of urgency”.23 EDF Energy suggested that the creation of a permanent successor body to NIRAB could maintain momentum and strategic alignment for R&D across the UK Nuclear Industry.24

25.In its final report NIRAB emphasised the importance of having an effective mechanism to coordinate public sector funding in nuclear R&D. Commissioning additional research programmes, such as the five year £250m programme announced in the spending review 2015 (see paragraph 34), will increase the complexity of the landscape of publicly funded nuclear research. In order to achieve value for money and the Government’s desired outcomes effective co-ordination will be vital.25 A similar point was made by Mr Donald, he told us:

“[T]here is quite a lot of funding [from] different bodies. They tend … to co-ordinate at a tactical level … but there is no overarching view of it all … we [the ONR] thought that it would be a cost to produce and provide [overarching co-ordination] but the benefit from it would probably overplay the cost involved.”26

26.Professor John Loughhead, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said that while the UK has a more distributed system of nuclear R&D, compared to other countries such as France, “it is probably not accurate to deduce that, therefore, it is totally fragmented and uncoordinated”.27

27.In its written evidence the Government said it is currently “considering its future options for accessing independent expert advice on nuclear research and innovation and an announcement will be made in due course”.28

28.Professor William Lee, Professor of Ceramic Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, told us that a successor body to NIRAB would need to “oversee the sector deal … link with … UK Research and Innovation … coordinate with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the nuclear industry (e.g. via the Nuclear Industry Association and the Nuclear Industry Council) … and develop a coordinated global strategy”.29

29.Xavier Mamo, Director R&D UK Centre at EDF Energy, highlighted that in France the Government has a close involvement in supporting the nuclear industry and providing strategic governance. The French President of State chairs the national nuclear policy council, which involves Ministers and representatives from the industry with “the clear objective of setting out strategic orientation and priorities for the nuclear sector as a whole”.30 Mr Mamo made it clear that in comparison to the plethora of UK government organisations responsible for nuclear research, the French system had a more “limited number of actors and players delivering the research and development programme”.31 He also told us that France has an existing strategic road map for nuclear R&D that identifies and delivers against important milestones.32

30.The Committee restates its recommendation from 2011 that a non-departmental public body (NDPB), distinct from the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), be set-up with a co-ordinating and supervising role for nuclear R&D in the UK. Such a body could work in close collaboration with the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC). It is important that any new body takes forward the important recommendations from the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) as soon as possible. In an industry as long-term as nuclear a new permanent body of this kind will help ensure continuity and consistency for R&D in the UK. It could also help save money by reducing or eliminating duplication of R&D across the different bodies involved.

31.The Government must make clear whether it is still working to its 2013 roadmap and, if so, what body has oversight of it and is responsible for measuring progress against it. An NDPB, as described above, would be ideally placed to measure progress against a roadmap, as recommended by the Committee in its 2011 report.

32.We reiterate the recommendation from our 2011 report that the new NDPB should be given a modest amount of new funding to carry out its activities. It should also have the power to attract money from industry and elsewhere.

Future funding of nuclear R&D

33.In February 2017 NIRAB published a review of the civil nuclear R&D landscape in the UK in 2015/16. This was an update of a review carried out in 2013 and highlighted how the landscape had changed since 2013 when the Government’s nuclear industry strategy and R&D roadmap were published. In particular it highlighted how public funding for nuclear R&D in the UK has remained broadly flat across this period (see Figure 2). Much of the public funding is directed through the NDA for research into dealing with nuclear waste and decommissioning. Dame Sue Ion, Chair of NIRAB, told us that the UK is world class in this area because we are performing some of the most difficult challenges globally. However, she went on to say that in those areas highlighted as lacking in funding by the Committee in its 2011 report, including advanced fuels and advanced reactors (collectively known as Generation IV technologies—see Box 2), there has been almost no investment in the five subsequent years.33

Figure 2: Public funding on nuclear R&D in the UK broken down by source

Column chart

Source: NIRAB, The UK civil nuclear R&D landscape survey (February 2017): [accessed 24 April 2017]

Figure 3: Public funding of nuclear R&D by Country 1980–2013

Line graph

Source: NIRAB, The UK civil nuclear R&D landscape survey (February 2017): [accessed 24 April 2017]

34.In the spending review and autumn statement 2015 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, The Rt Hon George Osborne MP, announced £250m of funding for nuclear research and development over the next five years. In the announcement Mr Osborne said the investment would “revive the UK’s nuclear expertise and position the UK as a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies”.34

35.However, only £20m of the £250m promised has been released so far.35 Dame Sue Ion explained to the Committee: “It is a good start, but, three years down the road, we need to see the commitments fulfilled”.36

36.Dame Sue Ion also highlighted that it is important that funding for nuclear is maintained and does not have to compete with other technologies as part of the Government’s energy innovations spending. She said that the Energy Innovation Board, which co-ordinates public funders of energy research, “would not do justice to the nuclear part of it because it would not have sufficient time to give it the scrutiny that is necessary” because it has such a broad remit.37

37.Despite the additional £250m over five years promised by the Government in 2015 the amount of UK funding for nuclear research, development and innovation is much lower than public funding levels in other leading nuclear nations, including the US, France and Japan. If the Government’s aim is for the UK to be active across the main areas of nuclear R&D and not simply to restrict its interest to being an operator of equipment supplied by others it needs to make significant investments, particularly in those areas (such as Generation IV technologies) that both NIRAB, in its final report, and this Committee, in 2011, have recommended.

13 Due to the complexities of funding these figures do not necessarily catch all the detail of EPSRC expenditure on nuclear research.

14 Science and Technology Committee, Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities (3rd Report, Session 2010–12, HL Paper 221), para 272

15 Written evidence from Bristol University/SW Nuclear Hub (PNT0043), University of Leicester (PNT0022)

16 Written evidence from EDF Energy (PNT0039)

17 Written evidence from AMEC Foster Wheeler (PNT0044)

18 Written evidence from NSG Environmental Ltd (PNT0050)

19 Q 22 (John Donald)

20 NIRAB, NIRAB Final Report 2014 to 2016 (February 2017): [accessed 16 March 2017]

21 Ibid.

22 Written evidence from Atkins (PNT0015), Centre for Nuclear Engineering, Imperial College London (PNT0054), EDF Energy (PNT0039), GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (PNT0030), Gwynedd Council (PNT0011), Nuclear AMRC (PNT0026), NDA (PNT0036), NIA (PNT0041), Nuclear Institute (PNT0033), Sellafield Ltd (PNT0052), UKAEA (PNT0035) and Prof Neil Hyatt (PNT0028)

23 Written evidence from Bristol University/SW Nuclear Hub (PNT0043)

24 Written evidence from EDF Energy (PNT0039)

25 NIRAB, NIRAB Final Report 2014 to 2016 (February 2017), recommendation 3: [accessed 16 March 2017]

26 Q 22 (John Donald)

27 Q 34 (Prof John Loughhead)

28 Written evidence from HM Government (PNT0029)

29 Written evidence from Prof William Lee (PNT0004)

30 Q 20 (Xavier Mamo)

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Q 54 (Dame Sue Ion)

34 HM Treasury, Spending review and autumn statement 2015 (27 November 2015): [accessed 20 March 2017]

35 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Funding for Nuclear Innovation (3 November 2016): [accessed 21 March 2017]

36 Q 53 (Dame Sue Ion)

37 Q 52 (Dame Sue Ion)

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