Source: Adrian Pingstone/Wikipedia. Both ends of Parliament now call on the government to support nuclear R&D.
Last week the House of Commons’ Energy & Climate Change Committee released the long-awaited final report of its Inquiry into Small Nuclear Power. The report is well-researched, cautious, and strongly recommends that the Government thoroughly assess the feasibility and economics of small nuclear power plants.
Most welcome, the Committee issued clear backing for thorium R&D in the UK, saying that the, “UK must remain an active participant in thorium research and development”. The Committee went even further, calling on the Government to commission an in-depth study “to confirm the benefits of thorium in the longer-term and how any potential barriers to its use might be overcome” (ECCC report, p.9).
We hope that the Government will follow up the Committee’s recommendations with concerted action, and look forward to reading the terms of the thorium study in the New Year. As an essential precursor, the Government must recognise the economic benefits of nuclear R&D and recommit to programmes of nuclear research.
Thorium fuels and thorium-fuelled reactors deserve thorough economic assessment but, whilst that review is ongoing, the Government must make sure that UK institutions maintain their early lead in thorium R&D. With a little help, UK organisations could become world leaders in developing this most promising clean energy technology. Three recent examples of the UK’s world-leading thorium R&D:
- –The UK National Nuclear Laboratory designed prototype thorium fuels for Thor Energy. This fuel is currently being tested in the Halden reactor in Norway;
- –Researchers at Cambridge University showed that thorium would allow us to safely recycle spent reactor fuel many times, allowing us to safely convert a greater proportion of nuclear “waste” into clean electricity, even in existing reactors;
- –The University of Manchester co-designed the U-Battery micro-reactor, a compact high-temperature reactor which is part-fuelled by thorium
In the last two years the UK’s world-renowned academics and industrial labs have, with few resources and scant government support, overtaken the USA and the rest of the EU in thorium R&D.
The UK will lose its early lead in this growing field if greater support for thorium R&D is not forthcoming. Despite strong objections from the Lords, current policy fails almost entirely to support nuclear R&D, which is the lifeblood of this industry. As we noted in our recent letter to the Daily Telegraph, the reactor R&D budget has suffered a swingeing 99% cut in the past 20 years. We should consider how many new lifesaving drugs would have been brought to market in the last 20 years if the life-sciences budget had been cut by 99%. The answer is: not many.
Nevertheless the last 12 months have witnessed a great surge in private sector-led nuclear R&D, with many very promising reactors breaking cover. Programmes of research and development are urgently needed to enable UK organisations to take a lead in commercialising the many next-gen reactor concepts now in development around the world.
With both Lords’ and MPs’ Inquiries ringing in its ears, the Government must resolve to revitalise the UK nuclear industry with a renewed focus on R&D, and to make the UK the pre-eminent international hub for research into thorium-fuelled reactors.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers.