Last reviewed 17 April 2018

As smart and renewable clean energy sources vie for atomic fission’s place in the UK energy mix, the nuclear sector is working out how to sell innovation, advanced expertise and unique know-how to expanding global markets.

With delicate footwork, the Government is edging towards a continuing UK role in the European nuclear energy community while also clarifying how it wants to help give Britain’s atomic industries a competitive international future. In doing so, it faces at least two major challenges.

The first is whether the new Nuclear Safeguards Bill can replace all the relationships enjoyed by being a long-established member of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The new Bill, which had its third Commons reading in late January and went to the Lords early in February, is meant to ensure no regulatory gap after Brexit. However, other agreements will be needed.

In addition to the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, the UK’s response to leaving Euratom includes regionally bilateral safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency, similar bilateral Nuclear Cooperation Agreements with Japan, Australia, the USA and Canada, and a new demonstrator nuclear safeguard regime regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

Euratom is important because it oversees how nuclear materials are used, moved, owned with duties of care, and eventually disposed of within the EU. Two extra problems for Downing Street and its Brexit red-lines are that, first, Euratom’s activities fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and second, they are based on free movement of nuclear specialists around Member States, factors that might be very important for major UK nuclear power station infrastructure projects.

A further headache for the UK on leaving Euratom is that new highly-trained inspectors will be needed. Failure to deliver the package above could make it difficult to transport vital materials and potentially jeopardise the development of big UK nuclear projects.

Leading-edge technology

The second challenge for ministers is how far they are prepared to back the national and export future of UK advanced technology, in particular the development of small modular reactors (SMRs). At roughly one-tenth of the size of conventional reactors, SMRs could represent an estimated international market of up to £450 billion by 2025, with a capacity of 65GW to 85GW.

Whitehall’s support comes with the caveat that the industry must be able to compete on its own legs in the foreseeable future, at a time when increasingly efficient renewable energy technologies are snapping at its heels.

The Government is also setting out its thinking on siting criteria for future nuclear power stations, plus its strategic approach to building an ultra-long-term Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for high-level nuclear waste.

Small modular reactors (SMRs)

The nuclear industry hopes that the Government will at the very least support SMR development programmes. These have been described as a once in a lifetime opportunity for the UK and its nuclear companies in designing, manufacturing and building the next generation of nuclear plant. The concept is that once produced in centralised manufacturing units, SMRs can be transported very profitably around the world to be installed quickly with minimum on-site construction work. Economies of scale are expected to drive costs down.

A consortium led by Rolls-Royce, backed by a major construction contractor, plus engineering, design, planning, project management specialists, envisages a mature SMR sector generating power for £60 per megawatt hour. This compares to £92 per megawatt hour for Hinkley Point with its large convention reactors.

All eyes are on the Government to see what scale of funding it is willing to commit to help the sector get off the ground; there are fears that it might be, as one source was quoted recently, “enough to keep the programme on life support”. The hope is that with all ducks in a row, SMRs can produce power at two-thirds the cost of the existing Hinkley Point installation.

Balance point

However, the Government faces a dilemma. The unexpected much larger than expected fall in offshore wind energy prices over the last few years, plus a similar surge in industrial-scale battery storage technology, have reshaped, and are continuing to reshape, the energy landscape. A large fleet of conventional new generation nuclear power stations with high cost and long-term decommissioning commitments may be unnecessary, say many critics.

The Government currently doesn’t see it that way. It sees the successful delivery of stations such as Hinkley Point C, now under construction on the Somerset coast, to eventually provide some 7% of the UK’s “clean” electricity, as important to an industry that is an essential pillar of its new Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy.

Nuclear family

Energy Minister, Richard Harrington, recently reminded the Nuclear Industry Association annual conference that the sector provides tens-of-thousands of highly-skilled jobs which benefit the UK regionally from Cumbria to Somerset and Wales to Oxfordshire. Hinkley Point C work already involves some 2500 workers on site; more than £450 million has been awarded in contracts to local businesses. The aim is to continue to work closely with large international specialists on other projects, such as NuGen’s Moorside project in Cumbria.

Government thinking

The Government has announced measures designed to boost innovation and, importantly, provide greater clarity on future planning. These include the launch of consultations on siting large-scale future nuclear plants, en route to a new National Policy Statement for conventional nuclear power stations to be built between 2026 and 2035. It has set out the proposed siting process and planned assessment criteria for potentially suitable sites with single reactor capacity above 1GW. The aim is to give developers reassurance and certainty into the 2030s.

Radioactive waste has always been a contentious but unavoidable subject that is variously described as being a commercial technical opportunity versus a nightmarish scenario. In January, two consultations were launched as part of a process to finally site a GDF for higher activity radioactive waste, something that been discussed for many years. The two-fold approach will look at a framework for future planning decisions, plus working closely with involved local communities.

The international experience, according to the Energy Minister, is that any successful siting of a GDF depends on “willing host communities” and “strong, effective and lasting relationships, built on mutual trust and a shared vision of the long-term economic benefits for the host community …”

The hope is that a consultation process will reassure industry that investing in the supply chain — people and capability — will be commercially viable once the delivery phase is reached. Estimates indicate that at peak construction, 1000 site jobs, plus an additional 1000 supply chain posts, will be created.

A working GDF could support some 600 jobs annually for more than a century. Sceptics argue that given the enormous amount of time involved in nuclear decay, what will happen beyond the end of a century is a considerable concern.

Small is still beautiful

However, when it comes to supporting SMR development, the nuclear industry has made three demands of Government. The first is for more effective early liaison with regulators to make sure there is a minimum of singing from different hymn sheets. Some £7 million is being provided here. The second has been for help to turn development ideas into detailed designs; during the next five years, £44 million in R&D funding will support Generation IV advanced reactors.

The industry’s third request has been to create the right conditions for developers to bring new reactors to the market. Key to this is demonstrating commercial viability — including the ability to attract investment and generate cost-competitive electricity in a fast-changing low-carbon market. The Government is still looking into this but has set up an expert finance group due to report in spring 2018 on investment barriers to smaller-scale design and how to overcome them.

The Clean Growth Strategy includes £460 million in funding support work that could cover future nuclear fuels, new manufacturing technologies, recycling, reprocessing and advanced reactor design. There will also be a second phase of the Nuclear Innovation Programme, with £8 million for modern safety and security methodologies, plus advanced fuel studies. Contracts worth £5 million have also been awarded for work on materials and manufacturing as part of the Small Business Reactor Initiative.

Always 30 years away

For historic reasons, the present nuclear industry is based on fission — splitting atoms. However, the world continues to grapple with the enticing possibilities of nuclear fusion — combining atoms — even though the technology is regularly described as always being “30 years away”.

However, research continues: £86 million has been designated to establishing the National Fusion Technology Platform which will help the UK to target major nuclear fusion contracts. It also builds on a pledge made last June to fund the UK’s fair share of support for Joint European Torus (JET), until the end of 2020 and continued collaboration with European nuclear partners. JET, located at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, is the world’s largest tokamak and only operational fusion experiment capable of producing nuclear fusion.

Its work feeds into the advanced but still largely theoretical International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) programme in France described as the first fusion device that will be able to maintain fusion for long periods of time.