Watching a panel of top British scientists set the UK on the road to new forms of nuclear power this week looked a bit like a scene from an American film where an impoverished farmer puts his son on a bus with a five-dollar bill to start life anew in the big city.
There were plenty of wise words from the scientists – led by the government’s outgoing chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington – who were making public their year-long study and recommendations on nuclear research and development. There was that intriguing mix of promise and uncertainty.
As a bonus, there was even action, when over in a separate location government ministers announced they had taken some of the scientific advice to heart and were implementing measures to support new nuclear R&D.
But as with the underwhelming fiver handed over by the father, there was an unconvincing amount of money. The centrepiece investment was a £15 million starter kit to encourage industry, academia and government to work together – hardly an amount that will construct, say, a thorium molten salt reactor.
No doubt the vision and early groundwork was there, put forth by the scientists who besides Beddington included – among others – David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC); John Perkins, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS); and Robin Grimes, the chief scientific adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
NO FUTURE WITHOUT NUCLEAR
Beddington said at the London gathering that he “cannot see a future” for the UK energy sector without nuclear.
“If it’s going to meet its obligations for greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time have some degree of resilience in the system, there has to be a significant component for nuclear,” noted Beddington, before he revealed the recommendations of a study that goes by various names including “Nuclear R&D Roadmap.”
The roadmap helped shape the simultaneous government announcement led by BIS and joined by DECC of a nuclear “industrial strategy.”
The strategy included £15 million for research at three institutions that will bring together government, academia and industrial interests – key in a deregulated energy environment like the UK, where market forces rather than government runs the energy sector.
It also included the expansion of DECC’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) into a full-fledged central government research and advisory institution.
NNL is a government owned, commercially operated group that has primarily conducted contract research programs. Its chief science and technology officer Graham Fairhall was part of the 6-person panel that presented the roadmap. NNL’s managing director Paul Howarth was another of the roadmap’s authors, as was Andrew Sherry, the director of the Rolls-Royce-backed Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. Sherry participated on this week’s panel.
(For a full list of the report authors, click here and go to “Annex B”).
The scientists urged the development of alternative nuclear technologies if the country is to choose the more nuclear-intensive of the government’s proposed scenarios for cutting British CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050.
DECC’s MacKay said that in a high nuclear scenario with 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, nuclear could provide up to 86 percent of the UK’s electricity, providing 525 terawatt hours (tWh) per year out of a total of 610 tWh, a level he noted is “comparable to France.” Nuclear today provides about 18 percent of the UK’s electricity.
“Clearly I think that if we’re going to be thinking about a significant expansion of nuclear capacity as we move toward our goal in 2050 of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we need to keep options open,” Beddington said. “And part of those options is … having the R&D to think about taking it forward.”
NUCLEAR VARIETY SHOW
That “R&D” includes the development of a number of unconventional nuclear reactor types, elaborated MacKay, who noted that, “there are a variety of ways of delivering 75 gigawatts of nuclear.” Among the alternatives that he and others mentioned: reactors such as “fast” reactors that can burn nuclear waste in a “closed fuel cycle”, molten salt reactors, thorium-fueled reactors, and fusion.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because I broke the story of the then forthcoming roadmap here on the Weinberg blog nearly two months ago. I subsequently tipped it in The Guardian and on my CBS SmartPlanet blog.
During the course of their year-long study, the Beddington crew gave ongoing advice to the government. That has already resulted in action, as BIS secretary Vince Cable and his DECC counterpart Ed Davey announced the £15 million for coordinated industry, academic and government nuclear research at NNL, Dalton, and at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford.
The government’s BIS-led “industrial strategy” announcement also noted that BIS has provided £18 million to 35 different nuclear R&D projects, including £6 million to OC Robotics, a Bristol, England company that makes a robot controlled laser cutting tool for decommissioning reactors (important for taking down old sites, but not a direct step toward new, alternative reactor technologies).
To further help coordinate industry, academia and government – a theme that the panel repeatedly emphasized – BIS and DECC announced an alphabet soup of agencies that will work under the government’s recently formed Nuclear Industry Council.
The new Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) carries on the work of Beddington’s ad hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board, which wrote the advisory report. Another new group, the Nuclear Innovation Research Office (NIRO), will reside at NNL to advance NIRAB’s work.
The government stated in its BIS-led announcement that, “It is keen to explore opportunities to back future reactor designs, including the feasibility of launching a small modular reactor (SMR) R&D programme to ensure that the UK is a key partner of any new reactor design for the global market.”
On a related note, the Beddington advisory panel recommended that the UK join SMR development efforts with the U.S. where the Department of Energy (DOE) has a $450 million SMR development programme.
“There’s a potential synergy by working with the Department of Energy in the USA, which is actually setting up a fairly large programme with significant finance in it,” said Beddington. “In a sense we can work with them, and that is rather attractive. It generates a potential for piggybacking on work that’s going to be done in working closely with the Department of Energy.”
SMRs provide utilities and other end users with lower cost options for adding incremental power, and provide cleaner and lower cost energy in remote areas, where dirty and expensive diesel generators typically serve.
While SMR designs come in conventional uranium-fueled water-cooled varieties, many of the alternative reactors such as molten salt, pebble beds and fast reactors lend themselves to small form factors. In fact various fusion companies are also trying to develop small fusion reactors.
FUSION MEETS FISSION
BIS scientific adviser Perkins described fusion “as a long term opportunity, where the UK has a significant position,” given its research at Culham, which participates in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion project in Cadarache, France. Perkins pointed out that, “there are crossovers in R&D between fusion research and fission research,” as both involve developing materials that can withstand intensive neutron bombardment.
At the scientific advisers’ press conference, Beddington said it is too early to choose any one SMR technology.
Other recommendations by the scientific advisers included that Britain:
- Rejoin the international Generation IV International Forum on nuclear development
- Participate in EU and other spent fuel recycling research
- Invest in “closed fuel” cycles and reactors that don’t require constant replenishing of fuel as conventional reactors do
- Work on nuclear development with other countries including key partners France, the U.S., China, India, Japan and South Korea. (Such as with NNL’s recently announced £12.5 million project at the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France)
- Invest in nuclear fuel fabrication and infrastructure
- Develop exportable nuclear expertise
Back to my farmer’s analogy.
That £15 million is a good start. But like junior’s five-spot, it’s barely a token in an industry that the government this week valued at £1 trillion globally.
Serious development of alternative reactors will require serious money. To single out just one example, anyone I’ve ever talked to about building a thorium molten salt reactor sets the ultimate development cost in the billions of dollars. The £15 million pales next to that. So does the £12.5 million that DECC’s NNL two weeks ago said it was investing in the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France, which to be facetious, could buy some pumps and valves and several cases of Chateau Pétrus, but won’t come anywhere near getting the job done.
Nonetheless, these are undoubtedly significant developments.
Beddington called this week’s announcement “an important and exciting first step,” that “will reverse the years of decline in taking nuclear R&D seriously.”
And additional government funding appears set for next year, when Grimes anticipates another £10 million for irradiation studies.
At some point, though, those numbers will have to grow by an order of magnitude.
“We probably do need to up the investment in nuclear R&D,” Beddington said. “Unless we get that, I have concerns that there are issues around the nuclear program. But we’ve set out a fairly comprehensive R&D roadmap which I think will have an implication of additional money.”
Given that the UK handed over real control of its energy sector to the market 20-some years ago in Prime Minister Thatcher’s privatization movement, the hope might have to be that the newly strengthened industry-academia-government collaboration instigates more financial interest from industry.
To make up an example: How about if BP invests in SMR development? It’s not so far fetched. Oil giant Shell has shown recent interest in a molten salt reactor.
In what looks like another step to help catalyze industry involvement, BIS – the government’s business department – rather than DECC, ran this week’s nuclear industrial strategy announcement. Prime Minister David Cameron echoed that same business emphasis later in the week when he gave BIS’ business minister Michael Fallon the second job of energy minister within DECC (under secretary Davey), replacing former energy minister John Hayes, who is now an adviser to Cameron.
Fallon should encourage private investment across different energy sectors, including nuclear.
Until industry ponies up large sums for nuclear R&D, the government will continue to suffer from China envy, watching Beijing pour money into nuclear R&D, which it can do because it – not the market – controls the energy sector.
Once the real funding arrives in the UK, the ride could lead somewhere. Maybe even on an electric bus powered by nuclear.
Photos by Mark Halper
The government published a number of in-depth documents this week relating to the UK’s nuclear future:
- A Review of the Civil R&D Nuclear Landscape
- The UK’s Nuclear Future
- Long-term Nuclear Energy Strategy (this is the government’s industrial strategy announcement)
- Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap: Future Pathways
- Ad Hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board (this is the summary set of recommendations from the advisers)
- Nuclear Industrial Vision Statement