The need for a nuclear strategy

01 December 2011

Portrait of Professor James Marrow

by Professor James Marrow
James Martin Professor of Energy Materials

Oxford Martin Senior Alumni FellowProfessor James Marrow was Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme in Nuclear and Energy Materials from 2010-2015.Professor Marrow's research is focussed on the degradation of structural materials and the role of ...

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The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology published their report on Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities. It’s a clear report that makes interesting reading, and it is available to download here.

The report sets out to examine whether or not the UK Government is doing enough to maintain and develop UK nuclear research and development (R&D) capabilities, including expertise, to ensure that nuclear energy is a viable option for the future. The context is the expansion of nuclear energy that would be required to meet the UK’s legally binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The evidence presented indicates that between 20 and 38 GW of nuclear power will be needed to do this. The current UK nuclear capacity is about 12 GW (about 16% of the UK’s electricity), much of which is due to close over the next 10 to 15 years.

The report sought evidence from many sources, including universities. I submitted written evidence, together with Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith, in which we described our concern that if the UK does not maintain and develop an active R&D capability, it will lose any opportunity to engage properly in international programmes. We observed that the UK nuclear fission research community is not large, having been underfunded by government and industry for several decades. Despite recent increases in the availability of funding, it is not adequate to meet future needs of new build of nuclear fission, or Generation IV in the longer term. We also consider that there were no significant opportunities for the UK to independently develop realistic future technologies by 2050, and the focus for such research should be through government funded international collaboration. The challenge of creating new and reliable technologies is too large a task for one country, and we regard the collaborative international development of fusion energy as a model for next generation nuclear plant development. We put forward our view that UK government should become an active member of GIF (Generation IV International Forum, with increased funding of research and training at Universities and national facilities to support this, and that the UK government should continue its strong support for the UK’s world leading fusion programme. This a view widely held in the R&D community.

The House of Lords report concludes that the Government is not doing enough. They find there to be an absence of leadership and strategic thinking in Government, which had resulted in a lack of co-ordination of nuclear R&D activities. This has created a perception amongst international partners that the UK is no longer a serious player. The latter is a view that I have certainly met at international meetings. The report considers that the UK needs a strategy to ensure we have adequate capacities and expertise to keep the option open for a higher contribution of nuclear to the UK energy portfolio towards 2050. There is a long lead time to developing this, however, particularly in the training of the necessary experts. The report also notes that there is little incentive for companies to invest in long term nuclear R&D if there is no such strategy, and without this the UK will not be in a position to have the new generation of experts and capabilities that could allow the UK to capture a significant part of the global UK market. Other countries will not wait for us.

They make a number of recommendations, including the development of a long-term strategy for nuclear energy, a road map for nuclear R&D and the creation of an independent Nuclear R&D Board. This board would comprise representatives from government, industry and academia and it would advise the Government as well as monitoring progress on the R&D strategy and roadmap. Importantly, it would have an R&D budget that could be used to support missing or vulnerable areas of strategic importance. The board would also facilitate public engagement on the use of nuclear technologies.

The Nuclear R&D roadmap would need to close gaps in UK nuclear R&D capabilities. These include facilities to carry out research on post-irradiated materials and also research on deep geological disposal, dealing with the plutonium stockpile, advanced fuel recycling and reprocessing, and Generation IV technologies. The reports states that the aim of the roadmap should be to establish the UK as a credible partner for international collaboration, and also that there should be a commitment by the Government to resume active participation in the Generation IV Forum at the earliest opportunity. The report also notes that a clear long term strategy is needed to

This is something that I fully agree with. It will be interesting to see how this develops. The road map is certainly something that the research community would be keen to support.

This opinion piece first appeared on on 30 November 2011

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.