U.K. Report Offers Nuclear Research Road Map

Dan is a deputy news editor for Science.

The U.K. government today published an industrial strategy to help its businesses make the most of expected growth in nuclear energy as the United Kingdom and other countries begin to build more nuclear plants to reduce carbon emissions. The strategy acknowledges that a burgeoning nuclear industry will need government support for research and development, and so it commissioned a review, also published today, on the current state of British nuclear R&D and a road map outlining what needs to be done in the future.

To kick things off, the government is spending £15 million on a new National Nuclear Users' Facility where university and industry researchers can study materials crucial to power generation and reprocessing. "This roadmap is a vital part of ensuring the UK can deliver its nuclear new build programme," said Steven Cowley, CEO of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, in a statement. The new user facility is "[e]specially exciting," he added. "[W]ith the recent advances in computational material design and microtesting, [it] will enable us and our partners to develop materials for safer, cheaper and more sustainable nuclear systems."

The review of nuclear R&D was sparked by a November 2011 report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee into U.K. nuclear R&D capabilities. The report concluded that there was "a lack of co-ordination of nuclear R&D activities and a perception amongst international partners that the UK is no longer a serious player in the field."

In response, the government set up in March 2012 the Ad Hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board, chaired by government chief science adviser John Beddington. The United Kingdom hasn't built a new nuclear power plant since the 1980s and that is reflected in the makeup of the country's nuclear research portfolio. According to the review: "decommissioning, waste-management, existing reactor operations and fusion predominate. Funding for the nuclear R&D sector is much lower than many international competitors and negligible for research into future generations of fission reactors."

Because the government clearly wants more nuclear power, the review recommends that it set up "a new R&D programme which explicitly supports the potential deployment of future nuclear energy solutions in the UK through the creation of the necessary technology, facilities and skills." The United Kingdom should overcome its current lack of facilities, the review says, by securing access to overseas facilities for British researchers and engaging in collaborations with other countries. There is almost no work going on in the United Kingdom on future alternative reactor designs, such as Generation IV reactors and small modular reactors and their associated fuel cycles, so Beddington's ad hoc board says the government should actively foster research in these areas.

Posted in Policy, Europe