Don’t let nuclear go into the sunset

Features editor
The Engineer

We’re constantly being told about the importance of nuclear power to the UK’s future energy landscape. It’s an integral part of the mix of generating technologies that we’ll need to meet emissions targets and ensure fuel security, along with cleaned-up gas and a range of renewables. It’s the only baseload generating technology with no associated carbon emissions, and it’s part of the main reasoning behind the redrafting of planning guidelines, to ensure that the new nuclear reactors we urgently need can be constructed quickly and smoothly. Nuclear, we are assured, sits right at the centre of the UK’s future energy strategy.

So it comes as something of a shock to see the House of Lords’ science and technology committee warning of ‘complacency’ over nuclear R&D in the UK. ‘It’s as though we’re setting off on a long journey without a map, without a driver, and without anyone to fix the car if things go wrong,’ said committee chairman Lord Krebs.

To be clear, this lack of R&D isn’t connected with the fleet of new reactors whose designs are currently undergoing assessment by the Health and Safety Executive; these are bought-in designs, from France and the US. The gap the committee refers to is in what comes after — the designs for reactors to replace these new ones, which would come into service in the middle of this century.

In some ways, this isn’t particularly surprising, although it’s a depressingly familiar story. The energy industry pretty much abandoned R&D in the 1980s following deregulation, when companies decided it was an unnecessary drain on resources. The short-sightedness of this policy was admitted by the industry when the Energy Technologies Institute was established in 2007.

Britain was a leader in civil nuclear technology in the 1950s, of course, with the first commercial nuclear power station in the world at Calder Hall. The country continued to lead the field with the design of magnox reactors, although the fleet of custom reactors this spawned has led to problems: the lack of standardisation is making them very difficult to decommission.

Nonetheless, British engineers literally wrote the books on high-temperature, graphite-moderated reactors, and these are the type of reactor which are likely to form the successors to the pressurised water reactors currently being built. The problem is, those books were written in the 1960s and 1970s, and the engineers who wrote them are now retiring.

There are far too many sectors in the UK where expertise and skills have been allowed to die out, and it’s usually been through government complacency and lack of foresight. Nuclear academics in the UK have been warning of this for several years now, and calling for a new generation of engineers who they can train in these skills. A good start would be for the UK to join the Generation Four International Forum, a group of countries pooling their resources on the design of a range of high-temperature reactors for future deployment; our older engineers can still make a valuable contribution to these efforts, and with their low-carbon profile, they could enthuse younger engineers as well.

But most worrying of all in the Lords report is a warning that our knowledge of nuclear technology is receding so fast that we risk losing our status as an ‘informed customer’ in buying current nuclear technology. It’s the equivalent of buying a new camera and not only not reading the manual, but not being able to tell which way up to hold it. If this is true, it’s highly alarming, and puts at risk any attempt to meet emissions targets. It could lead to the UK falling behind in the queue to order new reactors, and leave us with a generating ‘black hole’ which we won’t be able to fill.

It’s clear that there needs to be new scrutiny of training in nuclear technology, and some serious thought about energy R&D in this country. Nuclear should not join shipbuilding, steelmaking and train building as ‘sunset sectors’ where the skills base has been left to wither.