UK nuclear's future in government hands, say reports

02 May 2017

Two UK parliamentary committees have published separate reports - one related to research and development, the other concerning Brexit - that both call on the government to take action to ensure the future competitiveness of the country's nuclear industry.

According to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, "We have reached a critical moment for the future of the United Kingdom as a serious nuclear nation." It continues, "The undoubted potential of the civil nuclear sector has been blighted by the indecision of successive governments."

Civil nuclear is a long-term industry where changes in direction in successive governments' policies and periods of lack of clarity have had "a detrimental effect" on the development of the industry, particularly in respect of civil nuclear generation over the last 20 years, the report says. The government has highlighted the importance of the nuclear sector in its industrial strategy green paper and must develop "a clear, long-term vision" and a set of goals for civil nuclear strategy, it adds.

In its report - Nuclear research and technology: Breaking the cycle of indecision - the committee says it is "critical" for the incoming government to set out a decisive future for the industry. The report, published today, sets out a series of recommendations for the new government after next month's general election.

The government must make the "overarching" decision about the UK being "a serious player in developing nuclear generation technology, whether as a designer, manufacturer or operator, or to restrict its interest to being an operator of equipment supplied by others from overseas". Once it has made the decision, the report says, "other strategic decision will flow" to define clear objectives and timescales for the country's nuclear industry.

SMR competition

The government's failure to make a decision on its strategy for small modular reactors (SMRs) "is a prime example of its inaction in the civil nuclear arena", the report says. "Not keeping to the stated timetable for the SMR competition has had a negative effect on the nuclear sector in the UK and if the government does not act soon the necessary high level of industrial interest will not be maintained."

Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) chief executive Tom Greatrex said the industry shares the committee's "frustration" with the SMR competition. "With a potential global market for SMRs valued at £250-£400 billion ($323-$517 billion), the government must provide clarity as soon as possible after the general election if the energy, industrial and export opportunities of a UK SMR are to be realised."

Tom Mundy, NuScale Power's chief commercial officer and managing director for the company in the UK and Europe, also said a "clear direction" on SMRs from the government is needed. "We therefore welcome the committee's call for the government's SMR strategy to be published, setting out what the next steps will be to make SMRs a reality for the UK."

Committee chairman, John Roundell Palmer, said: "We also found that the amount of UK funding for nuclear research, development and innovation is much lower than public funding levels in other leading nuclear nations, including the US, France and Japan. If the government's aim is for the UK to be active across the main areas of nuclear R&D it needs to make significant investments in new technologies or we risk falling behind the rest of the world."


The committee also said the nuclear industry faces risks if the UK's membership of European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) expires at the end of the two-year negotiating period without a replacement. It warned, "The UK risks losing its lead in fusion research as well as losing access to the markets and skills it needs to construct new nuclear power plants and existing power plants could be unable to acquire fuel."

The report says there is a "real urgency for the government to act on this". It calls for the government to establish a working group of industry and government representatives "to develop a plan to preserve the essential benefits of Euratom".

The committee noted, "The development of nuclear energy within the UK cannot be seen in isolation or as an end in itself. It must be seen as part of a wider energy policy which seeks to balance the competing demands of affordability, security of supply, decarbonisation and interoperability with other elements in the electricity generation mix."

Meanwhile, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has said legal opinion is divided on the necessity for the UK to leave Euratom. The committee said, "Withdrawal from Euratom is an unfortunate, and perhaps unforeseen, consequence of the prime minister's objective of ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK." It added, "Ministers must end the uncertainty and resolve the matter by securing alternative arrangements as urgently as possible."

The committee - which examines the administration, expenditure and policy of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) - noted strong concerns within the industry that the new arrangements may take longer than two years to set up. It recommends the delayed departure of the UK from Euratom to give the industry more time to establish alternative arrangements.

"If this is not possible, the government should seek transitional arrangements, which may need to be longer than the three years proposed by the European parliament," it said. "Any interval between the UK leaving Euratom and entering into secure alternative arrangements would severely inhibit nuclear trade and research and threaten power supplies."

In its reported - Leaving the EU: negotiation priorities for energy and climate change policy - the BEIS Committee recommends the UK maintains access to the Internal Energy Market and retains membership of the Emissions Trading System until at least 2020. The UK must, it says, remain committed to domestic climate change policies and not let Brexit undermine emissions reduction targets that are enshrined in national law.

Greatrex said, "The BEIS Committee, and today's House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report, makes a number of sensible, pragmatic and realistic recommendations to prevent disruption, which the NIA welcomes." He added, "The government needs to take those on board and get on with serious discussion to ensure robust alternative arrangements are set up, in a realistic timeframe, to minimise disruption to the UK's nuclear industry both at home and in European markets."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News