UK sets aside funds for 'ambitious' nuclear research and development program

26 November 2015

Updated with comment from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

The UK will invest at least £250 million ($377 million) over the next five years in an "ambitious" nuclear research and development program, according to the Conservative Party-led government's Spending Review and Autumn Statement published yesterday. British Chancellor George Osborne's 'Comprehensive Spending Review' says this program will "revive the UK's nuclear expertise" and position the country as "a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies". 

Funding for this program is included in the "settlement" for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

"The government's doubling of investment in DECC's innovation program will help position the UK as an international leader in small modular nuclear reactors, and deliver commitments on seed funding for promising new renewable energy technologies and smart grids," according to the Review.

The move is part of government plans to "prioritize energy security, whilst making reforms to meet our climate goals at lower cost".

This will include a competition to identify the best value small modular reactor (SMR) design for the UK, paving the way towards building one of the world's first SMRs in the country in the 2020s. Detailed plans for the competition will be brought forward early next year.

To help back science-based and innovative companies in the north of England, the government is providing the £250 million for SMR development and wider nuclear R&D, creating opportunities for the North's centres of nuclear excellence in Sheffield City Region, Greater Manchester and Cumbria, as well as the nuclear research base across the UK. This builds on £25 million ($38 million) of UK funding for a Joint Research and Innovation Centre with China, to be based in the North West, which was announced by the Chancellor on his recent visit to Beijing and which the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) will lead for the UK.

This is on top of a total of more than £375 million ($566 million) over this Parliament - 2015-2020 - for dedicated science and innovation facilities in the North, according to the Review.

The launch of the investment package for SMR development and nuclear R&D is listed among "key project starts" for 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. Among "key project completions" in 2019-2020 is the development in extending the capabilities of the National Nuclear Users Facility (NNUF), which is part of the government's Nuclear Industrial Strategy announced in 2013. The aim of the NNUF is to provide greater accessibility to world leading technologies as a collaborative effort from four complimentary hubs within the UK - the Central Laboratory of NNL, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the Dalton Cumbrian Facility (part of The University of Manchester) and the University of Lancaster.

In addition, the Review states that a new National College for Nuclear will be based in Somerset, subject to due diligence.

The government will also provide more than £11 billion ($17 billion) for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) "to continue its vital work cleaning up historic nuclear sites". This includes "making significant progress" on the legacy ponds and silos at Sellafield.

In 2016-2017 and 2019-2020 the government expects to save more than £1 billion ($1.5 billion) by making efficiencies and savings in the NDA through "better value" contracts; "top class" commercial procurement; delaying "non-safety-critical" projects; and cancelling a project that is no longer needed due to a "world-first breakthrough" in nuclear decommissioning research.

DECC will deliver £220 million ($332 million) of resource savings by 2019-2020 through efficiencies from "pooling back" office and corporate services, and reducing the costs of contracts to manage the country's historic coal and nuclear liabilities, according to the Review.

The Autumn Statement - at times the Summer Statement (1993–1996) and the Pre-Budget Report (1997–2009) - is one of the two statements HM Treasury makes each year to Parliament upon publication of economic forecasts, the other being the annual Budget. Osborne replaced the PBR and its policy announcements in 2010 with a new Autumn Statement focusing on economic growth and government finances as projected by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR). Osborne's 2015 statement is a joint Autumn Statement and Spending Review – a Comprehensive Spending Review - and includes a new forecast by the OBR.

Industry welcomes R&D funding

NNL welcomed the announcement of £250 million in funding for a nuclear R&D program.

In a statement yesterday, its managing director, Paul Howarth, said: "I'm delighted by the news that the Government has recognised the vital importance of a UK nuclear R&D program to help return Britain to the global 'top table' of nuclear countries. This is the culmination of several years' work which began with the detailed assessment of the state of nuclear R&D carried out by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in 2011. Since that time, NNL has been at the forefront of the call for the establishment of a national nuclear research program and we are pleased that Government has today responded so positively to that advice. We now anticipate that NNL will play a central role in the delivery of the newly-announced program."

Plans for an SMR in the UK in the 2020s follows the publication, in December 2014, of a feasibility report by a consortium led by NNL into the potential impact of SMR technology on the UK energy sector and the UK nuclear supply chain.

Since July 2008, NNL has been providing independent advice to the government and working with other national laboratories around the world, and delivering research and technology to support the nuclear fuel cycle.

In its initial response to the Comprehensive Spending Review, the UK's Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) said it welcomed the government's commitment to the nuclear sector and its additional funding for nuclear R&D, including the development of SMRs.

But the civilian nuclear industry trade association urged the government "to adopt a strategic approach to departmental spending cuts, which balanced the need for immediate cost savings with the longer term interests of the country".

Maintaining the budget for the work of the NDA "will deliver value for the taxpayer through a progressive program of work, rather than by a stop/start approach, which significant cuts to the budget could have resulted in", the NIA said.

However, it has raised concern that no funding was allocated to develop a reuse option for the UK's plutonium stockpile. It said that "now is the time for the Government to put firm plans in place for dealing with this valuable asset". It added: "Industry wants to see a timetable agreed to identify and deliver the preferred technology-led solution, with enough time for a cross-party consensus to be developed."

Keith Parker, NIA chief executive, said the association had asked for a review which balanced short-term need with long-term gain. "Our call for an increase to nuclear R&D to protect the future of the industry, and put UK back as a global leader in nuclear development is warmly welcomed, as is maintaining the essential work to decommission the UK's nuclear legacy. The industry's focus is on delivering the current large-scale new build projects that are essential to the UK's energy security and transition to a low carbon economy. The funding for Small Modular Reactor research is welcomed and will benefit not just the UK nuclear supply chain, but UK-plc and energy security."

John Clarke, NDA chief executive, said: "With this settlement, our aim will be to continue to make broad progress across our nuclear estate, but it is clear that to achieve that we and our site licence companies will need to place even greater focus on achieving efficiencies and value for money."

The NDA will set out more details of the implications of the settlement in its draft Business Plan and Strategy documents which it will publish for consultation on 5 January. The consultations on both documents will be open for six weeks and comments will need to be returned by 15 February.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News