Posted by Mark Halper

Beddington RoadmapAnnounce Halper

Chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington “cannot see a future” for UK energy without nuclear, but says that the new nuclear R&D programme will need more funding.

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.

MacKay Roadmap Halper4

DECC’s David MacKay says that in the highest nuclear scenario, nuclear could contribute as much as 86 percent of Britain’s electricity, possibly through a variety of reactor types.

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.

Perkins Roadmap Announce Halper

BIS’ John Perkins hopes for much more industry, academia and government collaboration, including between fission and fusion research.

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.

Grimes Roadmap Panel Halper2

Foreign Office’s Robin Grimes expects an additional £10 million next year for irradiation studies.

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.”

CHINA ENVY

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: 

 

 

Comments

  1. Robin Grimes says:

    While I agree the amount of funding is not as much as we in the research community would wish for (and remember we can always see our way to more exciting projects), this funding should be seen in the context of:
    1) it provides us with facilities to be used along side existing and increasing funds from the Research Councils (I did emphasise that during the briefing),
    2) it provides academics with facilities that enable us to work more effectively with international partners. This translates to gearing so that our £27M will attract further inward investment from aboard and sponsorship from industry,
    3) the academic community is still in a re-growth stage so we need to demonstrate that this investment can lead to work that is valuable and valued by the wider nuclear community. We must also enthuse our colleagues with the challenges of nuclear energy research and build the academic community to be recognised as world leading. Once we have done that we can argue for further investment….and I bet we will!

    So to use another farming analogy, from small acorns great oak trees grow (sorry).

    Robin Grimes

  2. Dr David Lowry says:

    I find it incredible that two liberal democrat Coalition Cabinet members, DECC secretary Ed Davey and BIS Secretary, Dr Vince Cable, could sponsor a major push – wiht taxpayers’ monsy to resucitate the UK’s moribund nuclear industry- including promoting exports -, when their party’s policy is explicitly to oppose nuclear power, and any subsidies for new nuclear build. I have set out below the consequences of past enthusiams of promoting UK Nuclear sales and competences abroad.

    Dr David Lowry
    former director,European Proliferation Information Centre.

    1 It is probable that the British Magnox nuclear plant design – which was primarily built as a military plutonium production factory* – provided the blueprint for the North Korean military plutonium production programme too.

    2.It is certainly true that the UK provided Iran with its first nuclear reactor, having transferred it from Baghdad after a revolutionary coup.**

    3. Pakistan obtained the blueprints for its uranium enrichment programme, which formed the basis for its military nuclear programme, by Dr AQ Khan obtainied a research job with the Dutch branch of URENCO, the uranium enrichment company collectively owned by the Durtch, Germany and UK, one third each ( Osborne is currently trying to sell-off the UK part for £3bn). Khan remained as a “sleeper” for several years, before stealing the blueprints and fleeing back to Pakistan.

    4. At the end of last month the Coalition government published – to less than a media fanfare – that suite ofdocuments explaining how it plans topromote nuclear exports- partly to offset the escalating financial costsofnew nuclear build in the UK, which is going to require up to £150 bn in subsidies over the next40 years.

    That’s our non proliferation legacy folks!

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Here is what a Conservative minister, Douglas Hogg – later infamous for his moat – told former Labour MP, Llew Smith, in a written parliamentary reply on 25 May 1994:

    Korea

    HC Deb 25 May 1994 vol 244 c186W186W

    §Mr. Llew Smith

    To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether, during his recent meeting with his South Korean counterpart, he discussed the use by North Korea of blueprints of the British Magnox reactor design to construct its plutonium production reactors currently under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

    §Mr. Douglas Hogg

    We do not know whether North Korea has drawn on plans of British reactors in the production of its own reactors. North Korea possesses a graphite moderated reactor which, while much smaller, has generic similarities to the reactors operated by British Nuclear Fuels plc. However, design information of these British reactors is not classified and has appeared in technical journals.

    My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs did not discuss this matter with the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea during their recent meeting.

    My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs did not discuss this matter with the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea during their recent meeting.

    §Mr. Llew Smith

    To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the outcome of the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards inspection visit to the North Korean nuclear facilities on 18 May.

    §Mr. Douglas Hogg

    The full outcome of the latest visit of an International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team to North Korea will not be known until after their return to Vienna. However, the IAEA Director-General, Dr. Blix, reported to the United Nations Security Council on 20 May that the inspectors had been allowed to perform outstanding safeguards activities at the radiochemical laboratory. He also confirmed that North Korea had begun discharging fuel from the core of its 5MW reactor, in violation of its safeguards agreement.

    **Iraq &Iran

    HC Deb 14 December 1992 vol 216 cc23-4W23W

    §Mr. Flynn

    To ask the President of the Board of Trade what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the contribution made to the Iraq nuclear weapons programme of the technical aid provided by the United Kingdom to Iraq via the Baghdad pact nuclear training centre since 1962.

    §Mr. Heseltine

    It is my understanding from the limited information available that Iraq ceased to participate in the activities of the training centre when it was transferred to Tehran following the revolution in Iraq in 1959.

    *The plutonium production reactors at Calder Hall on the Sellafield site – then called Windscale, operated by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) – were opened by the young Queen Elizabeth, on 17 October 1956

    Calder Hall was not built or designed to be put to civilian – or peaceful – uses. Here is what the UKAEA official historian Kenneth Jay wrote about Calder Hall, in his short book of the same name, published to coincide with the opening of the plant. [He referred to] “major plants built for military purposes, such as Calder Hall.”(p.88) Earlier, he wrote: “… The plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant, to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power.”(p.80)

    We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer — in the catalytic nuclear burner (breeder reactor) — an inexhaustable source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. . . .
    But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to. In a way, all of this was anticipated during the old debates over nuclear weapons. . . . . In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war . . .
    It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration. [Weinberg, Alvin; “Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy”, Science, 7 July 1972, p33]

  3. Ian Turnbull says:

    I was drawn to this report by the “alternative nuclear venture” heading: and it is an alternative view of our nuclear work that I would dearly like to flag up for consideration. Like Sir John and the nuclear industry, I can not see a future without nuclear power. Like it or not, there is no going back. We can not “un-discover” the Atomic World. My abiding sense then is that the only way forward is to go in deeper. Which means, alongside of the physics of the atom, give time to the metaphysics of this same small world.

    It is the subjective nature of nuclear power that is the subject of my interest. I searched for uranium in Canada when I was a young man, and an introspective curiosity then took me to work at Dounreay where I sought to determine the emotional nature of radiation. Feelings of great sadness, was my general impression. I reported my experiences to the site operators … but they were pre-occupied by the physics of the plant and could not engage with this information. Yet I find this kind of inquiry opens the door for us to wonder if the particle world is more sentient, more conscious, than we have so far dared to consider.

    In my opinion, the substantial problems of nuclear power, the waste in particular, will not go away until we take the time to value the subjective and universal nature of the particle world and the nuclear processes.

    I have lobbied the industry and the military to look in at my web site , which seeks in the first place to flag up the “holographic nature” of our Universe. I find this principle – known in ancient time by the phrase “as above, so below” – gives us remarkable insight of the nuclear processes. I especially commend the symbolic content of nuclear fission that I have come to see, because it quickly describes an alternative view of our nuclear work. And this alternative, or complimentary, view then indicates the familiar and family and universal nature of the particle world.

    I live here in the Community at Findhorn, in north east Scotland, where there is a common interest in the universal. I think we’ve looked at this account of nuclear power more than others and see the potential we have to create some kind of healing approach to the phenomena of radiation. But we can not go any further without technical and financial support. If we can show that we can influence energetic effects at this next level of our shared universe, then nuclear power begins to look more pragmatic than before.

    We can hardly err by considering the particle world as a living system: indeed, as we do, the evidence that supports this understanding soon enough appears. This is what an “alternative nuclear venture” means to me. It is not so difficult. Not a cult thing. In essence, simply a matter of valuing the subjective and objective aspects of nuclear power equally, and combining this data to create an hologram or holographic model of our work “downstairs”.

    I trust these summary comments are enough to give you a glimpse of the universal setting within which we are going about our nuclear work. My web site is clearly amateurish, but it does posit the holographic nature of our Universe in a way hard to deny. The site is frequented by Americans in large numbers, and also Russian and Chinese and Polish visitors. These latter nationals are not constrained by the respect we give to Isaac Newton and his single-minded method which still dictates how we look at the natural world, so I do have the sense of change being in the air.

    I’d say the prevailing need is that we learn to make full use of our dual processor brain. Have both sides talk to each other an whole lot more. I like the analogy of throttling back the fuel going to the physics engine while increasing the flow to the metaphysics engine. Have both sides operating at the same power. Then I think we’ll make headway with our twin-engine craft and get to where we need to go.

    Thanks for the opportunity to post. Ian Turnbull. Findhorn. Scotland

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