Wednesday, 23 July 2014
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Joined-up nuclear research plan makes sense for UK

The issue of energy policy is never far from the headlines, and the government’s announcement of its latest nuclear policy is no exception. Announced as part of a series of industrial sector strategies developed jointly between government and industry — an approach which has itself drawn criticism from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as a mark of the politicians’ lack of ‘joined-up thinking’ — the strategy is aimed at making the UK a ‘leading civil nuclear energy nation’.

But of more interest to engineers is a report from an Ad Hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board, a group comprised of the chief scientific advisor, the chief science advisors at the departments of energy, business and foreign affairs, and the heads of several of the UK’s main nuclear stakeholders. This sets out the steps the research community should take to enable the government’s ambitions.

While the choice of reactors for the UK’s immediate new nuclear build is more or less set, the Board is looking to the future and wants to ensure the UK’s participation in the development of the next generation — perhaps mindful that all three possible reactor types under consideration for new build were developed with no UK input. British engineers should become involved with the development of small, cheaper reactors, building upon the expertise of Rolls-Royce in small reactors, which it builds for submarines. It should look at alternative nuclear fuels such as thorium, and reactors which use a closed fuel cycle, reprocessing and recycling what would otherwise be waste.

We’ll be looking at some of these technologies in more detail in a supplement on energy and sustainability, to be published in May. But these plans are good news for the industry, for academia in the UK and for the future of engineering. It’s alarmingly rare for a plan to be put forward which actually looks at future requirements, rather than some remedial work on an existing problem, and this strategy would embed British engineers in the work that will move nuclear towards a more environmentally-conscious future; and it will help reverse the decline in nuclear expertise as a result of decades of stagnation. It will also help identify future problems with issues such as decommissioning and nuclear proliferation, and make sure that there are technological solutions on-hand.

However, the environmentalists have a point. There’s no doubt this announcement will be seen in some quarters as the government ‘betting everything on nuclear’ and neglecting the development of renewable technologies. This isn’t what’s happening; nuclear requires a specific set of skills, equipment and technologies which have to be addressed individually. But in terms of presentation, this does leave wind, wave and tidal looking isolated; hopefully a similar announcement is forthcoming for these.

However, chief scientific advisor Sir John Beddington pointed out that there is no consideration at all in government circles that the UK’s future would be nuclear-free. ‘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,’ he said.

For some, this will be an alarming statement; but with the R&D backing it up, nuclear should not be a dangerous prospect. The Ad Hoc Board’s plans make sense, and the sooner it undergoes the transition to a permanent board overseeing real research, the better.

Readers' comments (12)

  • A step forward at last, but as with all these strategic projects (Nuclear / HS2 / Roads etc) the government insistence on private funding is going to kill it or cost a fortune. France seem to manage things differently, and don't allow the green extreme to delay / block what are essentials for the country's continued prosperity. I will be we are still talking about this, and doing nothing, as the lights go out.

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  • Nuclear power technology has had massive investment over past 50 years and hasn't come up with safe and economic option that can stand on its own two feet. If a technology is good it doesn't need endless taxpayer support...for example the electric ligt bulb, internal combusion engines etc etc

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  • The global fossil fuel industry received over $80bn worth of subsidies and tax breaks last year - one of the highest figures ever. No sector of the energy industry stands on its own two feet.

  • Best research and progress is being made by private firms. Get government out of the picture and clear the way for private efforts to succeed.

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  • And yet private firms will only build the UK's new nuclear plants if the government guarantees their payments.

  • Coal, Oil and gas will run out. Green is way too expensive as a complete solution, no matter how much cash governments throw at it. If we can't find something else to burn, then Nuclear is the only answer BUT it must be made to work safely.

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  • Phil,

    Would you care to give some figures to back up your claim that Green is way too expensive? As for fosil fuels running out, Jouleunlimited is already making genuine, not bio, diesel from its basic atoms.

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  • There needs to be a huge campaign to win hearts and minds about nuclear and how it fits in with wind, tidal, solar etc. while at the same time ensuring we select the right strategy. Does thorium fit into this mix as other countries are looking into this alternative and if it is safer than traditional nuclear it could appease the environmentalists, if properly explained.

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  • As indicated in the article, thorium technology is one of the options the board believes should be studied as part of the advanced reactors research strand.

  • Britain designed and built the world's first civil nuclear power plants so it is sad that we are not even in the running anymore (no British design available). Funding for research dried up in association with privatisation long ago and the costs may now be so high as to justfy a joint EU rather than British effort.

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  • If people don't like the nuclear way then why not build waste-to-energy plants? We generate enough waste in this country. However, nuclear is the way forward no matter who funds it.

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  • All very welcome, except for the nationalist stance. The world needs new nuclear. If we get chauvinistic about this the very scant resources will be wasted. We managed to build Typhoon internationally, not that that abortion should be held up as an example, why not a Thorium reactor. The Private sector is not going to put up any wonga unless it sees a guarantee of return on the research over just selling what it already has, which means a commitment that Uranium reactors are dead.

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  • Contrary to some views hereon, the UK has coal reserves sufficient to last about 300 years. It's the cost of providing 'clean' power from coal that has killed this fuel. The UK also has adequate Oil reserves but getting at them is proving politically difficult. National parks and suchlike in the way.
    Small, compact Nuclear power plants that use spent fuel from the giant reactors seems to me to be the only logical way forward, and one in which the UK, with moderate investment, could take the lead. Demoilish for scrap the useless Wind Farms and combine small nuclear with Tidal and the lights could well stay on.

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