Coordination key for UK R&D

24 February 2012

The UK must set up a central body to coordinate nuclear research and development (R&D) as well as developing a clearly defined long term nuclear energy and industrial strategy if it wants to make the most of the opportunities coming its way, according to a newly released high-level report.

Nuclear energy increased its share of UK electricity generation to 20% in 2011 according to preliminary figures released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The rise from nuclear's 2010 share of 16% was attributed to increased availability following a number of outages in 2010. Gas accounted for 41% of UK generation, down from its 2010 share of 48%. All other fuel sources saw their shares increase, with wind up from 2.4% to 4.0%, hydro up from 0.8% to 1.5% and coal up to 32% from 28%.

Various UK bodies including the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology have called for a roadmap to inform the strategic direction for the country's nuclear industry and identify the R&D needed to support it. Indeed, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, recently described existing UK governmental views on nuclear R&D as "troublingly complacent."

In response, the UK Nuclear Fission Technology Roadmap Preliminary Report has been prepared by the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) on behalf of a project team consortium comprising government agencies, public bodies and industry representatives: the Energy Research Partnership (ERP); the NNL; the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA); the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); and the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI). 

The report starts with the premise that nuclear power will have to play a much greater role if the UK is to enjoy a secure, low-carbon energy mix by 2050. This requires a long-term strategic approach that focuses on a secure supply of fuel, management of additional waste arising and also maximising supply chain opportunities.

The report looks in depth at two possible but, it claims, realistic scenarios for UK nuclear deployment: a replacement scenario, envisaging the replacement of the UK's existing nuclear park with 16 GWe of new nuclear generation capacity by 2025, and an expansion scenario, seeing the same 16 GWe to 2025 and further expansion to reach 40 GWe by 2050. It then considers the facilities, infrastructure and skills that will be needed to maintain and develop the necessary expertise and capabilities from a technology standpoint.

MOX in the mix

Technical issues highlighted for the replacement scenario include evaluation of the UK's current stock of plutonium and R&D to underpin licensing of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in yet-to-be-built Generation III reactors, plus assessment of the technical implications of increased volumes of waste. In addition, future expansion beyond the 16 GWe replacement scenario would also need the consideration of alternative fuel cycles such as plutonium-based Generation IV fast reactors and even possibly thorium fuel cycles, the authors suggest.

Mind the gap

Ensuring the availability of relevant skills, especially within the regulatory sector, will be vital, the report notes. To ensure the necessary skills are available to build and operate the required facilities, "the UK needs a skills pipeline starting now," it warns, adding that any delays or gaps in delivering a coordinated program will lead to unnecessary costs and delays to future new build programs.

To address the issues identified, the report makes three major recommendations. Firstly, it calls for further detailed assessments of the extensive lists of issues it has identified, both to increase understanding of the issues and identify potential opportunities. Secondly, it calls on the government to develop a clearly defined long-term nuclear energy and industrial strategy for the UK, with a nuclear sector R&D roadmap. Finally, it recommends that a coordinating body be set up to underpin nuclear R&D. This should include government, industry, regulators, academia and research funders as well as the NNL and NDA.

David Clarke, CEO of project team consortium member the Energy Technologies Institute, welcomed the report, noting that despite nuclear's high initial costs it would help to keep long term energy costs down. "While it is possible to create a future energy system capable of meeting our 2050 emissions reductions targets without nuclear energy, it will come with too high a price tag to be realistic. As the report makes clear, given the infrastructure and skill base that will be needed, actions need to be taken now to avoid closing off the nuclear energy option unnecessarily," he said.

The roadmap aims to ensure actions by key players are aligned across both the public and private sectors while identifying potential barriers to commercial deployment and is expected that the analysis it will lead to will feed in to the nuclear Technology Innovation Needs Assessment (TINA) being carried out by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News