Joined-up nuclear research plan makes sense for UK

A research strategy which actually addresses the future scenarios of the nuclear industry is good news for the sector and the UK as a whole

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.