Government commits more funds to nuclear research

Nuclear power stationBusiness Secretary Vince Cable has today (26 March) announced £31 million of funding for the UK’s nuclear industry. Government hopes the injection of funds will ‘enhance the supply chain and increase opportunities to commercialise new technologies in the sector’.

Together, four government bodies – the Technology Strategy Board, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – have put forward £18 million for nuclear projects, and the government funding is expected to leverage in an additional £13 million. The funds will go to 35 projects across the UK that are developing new technologies for the construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants, and will benefit 60 organisations, including Laing O’Rourke, Sheffield Forgemasters and EDF. These large companies will work alongside ‘innovative’ small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and universities.

Announcing the fund, Business Secretary Vince Cable said:?? “There are huge global opportunities that the UK is well placed to take advantage of in the nuclear industry. Our strong research base will help develop exciting new technologies that can be commercialised here and then exported across the globe.

“The Technology Strategy Board is playing a vital role in helping UK businesses realise their potential and compete on a bigger scale. There are many innovative SMEs across the nuclear sector and this joint funding reinforces the government’s commitment to a nuclear strategy that will create jobs and growth.”

Interest in decommissioning

One of the projects to receive investment is Bristol-based OC Robotics, which has received almost £6 million in funding – reportedly the largest ever grant given to an SME by the Technology Strategy Board. ??The company is developing LaserSnake, a robot-controlled laser cutting tool that can be used underwater or above ground in confined and hazardous spaces. It hoped this technology could play a key role in nuclear decommissioning projects to dismantle vessels, support structures and pipe work.

Dr Adrian Simper, the NDA’s Strategy and Technology Director, said:?? “We were extremely pleased with the level of interest in decommissioning projects from both established organisations and smaller, newer businesses. Our decommissioning strategy focuses very much on developing innovative technologies through collaborative working, while joint funding initiatives such as this increase the investment potential and provide much broader opportunities for interested partners.”

Nuclear strategy

The announcement has been made alongside the publication of the government’s nuclear industrial strategy, which sets out the objectives to develop a ‘strong and sustainable’ nuclear industry in the UK. The strategy is intended to allow ‘government and industry to exploit those opportunities’ inherent in the £1 trillion global nuclear industry. By 2030, the strategy forecasts that there will be £930 billion global investment in building new reactors and £250 billion in decommissioning those that are coming off-line. The strategy projects that a nuclear new-build programme in the UK could generate up to 40,000 jobs.

In addition to the £18 million for new nuclear projects, the government has committed £15 million for a ‘world class’ National Nuclear Users Facility where universities and companies can carry out research; it will have centres at Sellafield, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire and the University of Manchester’s Dalton Cumbrian Facility. Government also recently committed £12.5 million to join the Jules Horowitz Test Reactor in France, which will be used to test nuclear fuels. In 2011, the government spent £66 million on nuclear research and development.

UK needs a 'coherent industrial strategy'

Friends of the Earth responded to the strategy's announcement by highlighting the government's disconnected approach to energy generation, and calling for more investment in renewable energy. Head of Campaigns Andrew Pendleton said: “The UK needs a coherent industrial strategy – but this isn’t it. Bringing out separate strategies on nuclear, gas, oil and wind shows a lack of joined-up thinking by the Coalition on how we move to a low-carbon economy.

“Nuclear power is an outdated and hugely expensive energy source, delivered vastly over-budget and late, by a declining industry defined by escalating costs.
“The global eco-tech revolution will happen with or without Britain. So that we are not left behind, the government should be positioning us at its forefront by harnessing our bounty of clean British energy from the wind, sun and sea – this will create thousands of jobs and build a prosperous, secure economy.”

Public opposition

The news of the UK’s growing support for nuclear energy in its future energy mix appears to be at odds with much public and environmental opinion. 

In January, Cumbria County Council voted against continuing the search for potentially hosting a £12 billion underground disposal facility for radioactive waste in the area due to doubts over the suitability of the geology at Cumbria, as well as fears over damaging the Lake District’s image. The decision came as a blow to government, as West Cumbria was the only remaining British region willing to voluntarily host the controversial site.

Despite saying the decision was “disappointing”, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey said he “respected” the decision, adding that it was “absolutely vital that we get to grips with our national nuclear legacy” as the issue “has been kicked into the long grass for far too long”. 

Government’s nuclear agenda has also been criticised of late by some its own MPs; earlier this month (4 March), the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee called on the UK government to ‘urgently come up with a contingency plan’ for power, as government plans to build a fleet of nuclear power plants by 2025 are ‘ambitious’ at best and ‘unrealistic’ at worst.

Further to this, the dangerous legacy of nuclear waste has also brought the technology under the spotlight recently, after the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) released a report showing that the cost of decommissioning the Sellafield nuclear waste site in Cumbria has already reached £67.5 billion and shows ‘no indication’ of slowing down.

Despite this, the government last week (19 March) granted planning consent for Hinkley C, the UK’s first new nuclear power station since 1995.