Lords consider the future of nuclear research

The House of Lords continued their inquiry into the priorities for nuclear research and technology last week with two oral evidence sessions. In the first they heard from: Dr Adrian Simper OBE, Technology and Strategy Director, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority Dr Richard Savage, Chief Nuclear Inspector, Office for Nuclear Regulation, Mr John Donald, Superintending Inspector, Office for Nuclear Regulation and Mr Xavier Mamo, Director R&D UK Centre, EDF Energy. The witnesses were asked if the Government had a policy to support nuclear research to which they said they felt that there was an aspiration to have such a policy although it may not be properly formed yet. However, it was put into perspective by Mr Mamo who pointed out that in France €1bn was spent on nuclear research each year. Witnesses felt it was not clear whether the correct approach was the centralised state run one as the UK used to have with the UKAEA (and France does with the CEA) or the more market driven approach that the UK follows now. Dr Simper also pointed out that there was a need to ensure that R&D was used to actually drive technological advancement and not just skills development as important as that is. He also said that he felt that they got good value for money from services provided by the National Nuclear Laboratory.

The discussions then turned to the subject of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and whether the UK has the ability to participate in their development in a meaningful way. The ONR stated that while there were some regulatory challenges the process was technology neutral and so there was no reason why they could not be deployed in the UK. The witnesses were also pushed on what technology should be pushed for SMRs in the UK but they were clear that it was a matter for Government. The regulator did however point out that should an operator wish to operate combined heat and power with an SMR then the regulation could cope with it.

Those questions to Government were then addressed in the next session with Energy Minister Jesse Norman alongside Professor John Loughhead, Chief Scientific Adviser and Mr Craig Lucas, Director of Science and Innovation for Climate and Energy both officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The minister said that his desire was to build long term capacity and skills to deliver across the industry. Through a strategic approach to that he believed costs would be reduced. He expressed that there were particular issues for nuclear with rapidly changing technology outside the industry effecting the demand and the energy mix. He was asked if the UK should be seeking to own the nuclear technology deployed here but he thought that it made very little difference for the UK whether it owned the technology or not. However, in defence of his argument he said that the only Magnox reactor outside the UK was a North Korean copy but the committee members pointed out to him that there were 2 Magnox reactors exported. He was also adamant that the UK did have a nuclear strategy but acknowledged that there was a need to keep it up to date. This lead to questions about the role of the Nuclear Energy Council which he said was too large to be effective and so it has been slimmed down. It will meet 2-3 times per year and has an effective secretariat in the Nuclear Industry Association to keep it running.

As with the previous witnesses the Minister was quizzed extensively on SMRs. He said that there are clearly two classes of SMRs one which were close to market but in which case he wanted their proponents to show him the market. For this class it is possible to assess the likely path of cost reductions and the extent of the global market and then make funding decisions accordingly. There was also another class which are further away which need researching. For these it will be necessary to assess the value of the research generated and what the benefit of the intellectual IP created will be to UK Plc. He acknowledged that the competition was expected to finish by the end of last year but that it had been delayed by the change of government but he would not commit to when it would be announced despite being repeatedly pressed. His officials also described it as more of a call for ideas rather than a direct competition for a winner and they had had a wide range of ideas in. There is an engineering based assessment drawing on in house resources and expertise from industry to assess it. Dr Norman said that in his view you cannot say it is clear what needs to be done which is why they are looking widely. He would love to have a successful competitive SMR technology to roll out but wanted to be sure where the market is before committing funding to it.

The discussion then turned to the role of NNL. He recognised that there is a potential conflict of interest at NNL between commercial interest and providing independent advice to government but at the moment it is only a potential. He thought it was important for government to become a better client. He was also conscious that he did not want to create another body just for the sake of it.

The final section of the hearing turned to Euratom where the Minister regretted having to give notice on Euratom at the same time as Article 50 (not withstanding legal evidence being given at the same time in the House of Commons Select Committee that this was not the case, see previous Nuclear Matters article). He said the Government were giving active consideration to keeping the benefits of Euratom while being on the outside of the treaty. There was as yet no decision on whether to take an active role in Gen IV but the Minister does not see any benefit for the taxpayer at this time.