Scientists stipulate requirements for new nuclear

A new strategy for nuclear R&D could restore the UK to a leading position in developing technology for fisson and fusion.

While the government was announcing its nuclear strategy yesterday in Westminster, across town, the science advisors for the departments most closely involved, along with the chief science advisor and the heads of two of the UK’s most important nuclear technology centres, were announcing something of even more interest to engineers and scientists: the expansion of R&D that will be necessary if the country is to fulfil the politicians’ nuclear ambitions.

They could restore the country to the position it occupied half a century ago — at the forefront of the development of nuclear technologies.

“Smaller reactors would be easier to finance than larger ones”

Prof David MacKay, chief science advisor to DECC

The plans are predicated upon a large expansion of nuclear. Prof David MacKay, chief science advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, explained that electricity demand could rise by 60 per cent by 2050.

‘There’s a large amount of energy for heating and transport which currently comes from fossil fuels, and that will change partially or wholly to electricity,’ he said.

Nuclear will have to supply 16-75GW of the UK’s power by that point, depending on which scenario of energy mix the country follows — in the highest case, that would mean 85 per cent of the UK’s energy comes from nuclear, a situation comparable to France.

The research strategy looks to this high-nuclear point, said chief science advisor Sir John Beddington. ‘That gives us the flexibility of technology, equipment and skills we’d need to reach that point, should that be the scenario we go for,’ he said. It’s necessary to put the plans into motion now, before the precise energy mix has been established, he added.

The plans would see the UK rejoining the Generation IV Forum, the consortium of countries working together to develop advanced nuclear reactors which would operate at high temperatures and would be capable of consuming plutonium, of which the UK has a 112 tonne stockpile. The UK would also collaborate with the US’s Small Modular Reactor programme, a $450m effort to develop smaller reactors which could be built separately or stacked together.

‘Smaller reactors would be easier to finance than larger ones,’ commented MacKay. Reactor options with open fuel cycles (where fuel is used once and spent fuel placed in a repository) and closed cycles (where fuel is recycled and reprocessed) will be considered,

Some funds have already been allocated, said Prof Robin Grimes, chief science advisor to the Foreign Office. These include £15m for a National Nuclear Users’ Facility, which will have centres at Sellafield, the Fusion Energy Reseach Centre at Culham, and Manchester University’s Dalton Cumbria facility. Another £12m will go on joining the Jules Horowitz Test Reactor in France, which is used to test nuclear fuels and to provide samples of materials irradiated with neutrons.

Continuing involvement with fusion is a must, said Prof John Perkins, chief science advisor to BIS. ‘First of all, it’s just something we have to be involved with; the prospect of fusion is too important for us not to look at,’ he said. ‘But also, there’s an important overlap between fission and fusion research, especially with materials and some of the processes, and we want to take advantage of this synergy.’

The research plan also takes in such subjects as thorium reactors, seen by some as a cleaner and more efficient nuclear option than conventional uranium reactors. These would also be able to consume plutonium in certain configurations; Beddington said that options such as this, along with other closed fuel-cycle schemes such as GE’s PRISM reactors, might be considered as well as the current favoured option for dealing with the plutonium, which is using it in a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuelled reactor.

Skills is a particular issue for the UK nuclear community, said Prof Andrew Sherry of the Dalton Institute. There are currently 62,000 people employed in the UK nuclear sector, he said, but half of them are due to retire in the next ten years.

‘If we look at the industry leaders and subject matter experts, that’s closer to 70 per cent,’ he said. With nuclear new build projected to add 40,000 jobs, a large number of engineers will be needed in the coming decades. ‘The school-leavers of today are the nuclear engineers that we’ll need,’ he said. ‘And to train a subject matter expert takes 10-15 years from graduation, so we need a strategic approach.’ Combining post-doctoral study with working in industry would be a way to fulfil this need, he suggested.

The recommendations have not been issued with a price tag attached, and Beddington said that he and his colleagues — who have dubbed themselves the Ad Hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board — are aware that financial ties are straitened. ‘This strategy will make the government a more educated customer for nuclear technology in the future,’ he said. ‘And that could save money in the long run.’