New nuclear power capacity in the UK is a challenge to construct. Hinkley Point C had been in the pipeline since 2008. It now has final approval, but will take many more years to build. The length and expense of getting new capacity from initial proposal, through the expensive regulatory assessment to construction is a daunting prospect for companies with new reactor designs and plans.
The UK’s licencing and regulatory system needs to be better resourced and better connected. The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) undertakes a Generic Design Assessment, recognised globally as a leader in nuclear regulation. But ONR is limited in its capacity, able to do only two assessments at a time at present. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) manages the UK’s legacy of old reactors, spent fuel and – importantly – licensed nuclear sites.
The fact that regulation and siting are dealt with by different organisations lengthens delays, slows progress and increases costs, often with nuclear developers bounced between the two organisations. The disconnect between these two organisations and their separate priorities is also outdated. Increasingly, nuclear designs show potential to not only produce electricity and heat but also to recycle spend fuel as a resource rather than waste. To make progress on advanced reactors the two organisations need to work more closely together.
Both the ONR and NDA take their direction from the Government. With the Industrial Strategy highlighting that nuclear is a priority, the Government need to act. It should:
· tell the NDA to release sites for demonstration of reactors;
· tell ONR to begin Generic Design Assessment on two Generation IV designs.
The NDA has sufficient capacity to assess then release necessary sites. ONR’s lack of capacity has in the past been a block to nuclear innovation. Other countries’ nuclear regulators, notably the Canadian ones, have many more staff than ONR does (and are also more willing to begin dialogue with potential developers before the formal regulatory process begins). ONR now aims to increase its capacity, a welcome objective, that must now be delivered. Ministers must tell ONR to begin assessing advanced reactor designs to prevent them becoming a bottleneck for expansion. The increased capacity should also be used to allow greater cooperation between the two organisations.
With the exit from Euratom and competition from other countries, it is essential that the UK turns its policy support for nuclear into actual progress, or risk getting left behind in this key sector. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy must not use lack of ONR capacity as an excuse for inaction.