The UK government on 7 December announced several measures intended to support the development of next-generation nuclear technology. A key objective of the government’s Industrial Strategy white paper published in November was to "ensure the UK is developing the technologies of the future and preparing to seize the opportunities they bring and build on its strengths", the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said. Business Secretary Greg Clark said the announcements recognise the importance of industry driving innovation, supported by the government, so the sector continues to compete at the very highest level, not just in the UK but globally.
The government said funding of up to £56m ($74m) would be available over the coming three years to support research and development into innovative advanced and small modular reactors (SMRs), to assess their feasibility and accelerate the development of promising designs. The government will also support regulators in building the capability needed to assess and licence small SMRs and will establish an expert finance group to advise how such projects could raise private investment. Phase 1 comprises up to £4m for feasibility studies and up to £7m for nuclear regulators. Provided projects at stage one demonstrate “clear value for money” through a formal pre-approval process with the Treasury, up to £40m will be available for R&D projects and up to a further £5m for regulators.
Applicants wishing to lead such a project would need a "viable route to market", and can be any size or type of organisation, working alone or with others as sub-contractors. The final date for registration for Phase 1 is 7 February and applications must be submitted by 14 February. A decision will be made on 30 March, with contracts to be awarded in May 2018. Accepted projects will receive 100% of their eligible costs under this Small Business Research Initiative. Phase 1 contracts for technical feasibility studies will be worth up to £300,000 (excluding VAT), BEIS said. "Funding for phase 2 … will be for successful selected projects from phase 1 to undertake development work," it added.
The government also announced £86m for fusion research to set up a national fusion technology platform at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire. The funding was awarded to the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) to establish a centre to support innovation and expertise in nuclear fusion technologies and to establish a National Fusion Technology Platform (NaFTeP) at UKAEA’s Culham Centre.
BEIS said NaFTeP would bring together organisations from across the supply chain to provide a unique, world-leading set of nuclear research and innovation facilities in tritium and fusion technology. NaFTeP will support UK industry in targeting major scientific and engineering contracts in nuclear fusion and safeguard the future of the Culham site and the world-class scientists and engineers that work there, it added.
The new investment will allow UK firms to compete for up to a further £1bn of international contracts for fusion technologies, including for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). "This new funding for nuclear fusion research will establish a unique set of research and innovation capabilities that will safeguard the exceptional work already taking place in Culham by scientists and engineers from across the world, and emphasises the UK's commitment to international collaboration," said Science Minister Jo Johnson. The future of Culham has been in some threat as a result of the government’s decision to withdraw from the Euratom Treaty as part of its Brexit strategy. It is unclear how this extra funding will resolve the problem.
The UKAEA welcomed the announcement saying that NaFTeP “will enhance the UK's expertise in critical areas of fusion research, with significant benefits to the economy as part of the government's Industrial Strategy”. It will also “provide a powerful signal of the UK's intent to continue its participation in international science collaboration after leaving the European Union”. So far, 38 UK companies have won contracts totalling more than €500m on the ITER experiment, which UKAEA said is "the stepping stone to fusion power stations".
Large-scale nuclear plants
The government said it is also launching a consultation on siting of large-scale nuclear plants, as a first step towards designating a new National Policy Statement (NPS) for conventional nuclear power stations deployable between 2026 and 2035. The consultation sets out the proposed siting process and assessment criteria for a site potentially suitable for nuclear plants with single reactor capacity above 1GWe. “In having this new national policy statement in place, we provide reassurance and certainty to the 2030s," said Energy Minister Richard Harrington. “Nuclear is a vital part of our energy mix, providing low-carbon power now and into the future so today's package of new measures will help to boost innovation and provide greater clarity on our future plans."
BEIS said the current NPS for nuclear will remain in place for as long as it is required, adding that the government is consulting on the arrangements for the siting of nuclear power stations for the period beyond 2025. This “National Policy Statement for new nuclear above 1GW post-2025: siting criteria and process”, sets out the process and the updated high-level criteria used to assess potentially suitable sites. Consultation on a new NPS will continue until late 2018. Planning issues related to smaller reactors of less than 1GWe will be considered separately.
Consultations on geological disposal
The government also said it would launch two public consultations in 2018 on working with communities on an intended consent-based siting process and on a National Policy Statement for Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) infrastructure. “We recognise the need to implement a strong long-term solution for the disposal of higher activity radioactive waste. That's why, early in the New Year, we will be launching two consultations as part of a process to site a geological disposal facility for higher activity radioactive waste. We'll be consulting on a framework for future planning decisions and secondly on our approach to working with local communities in the siting process," said Harrington.
The BEIS statement also announced the second phase of the Nuclear Innovation Programme, comprising £3.7m for work on reactor design and safety engineering and £4.3m for work on advanced nuclear fuels. During the first period of this programme, launched last year, the government has awarded £5m of contracts for work on advanced materials and manufacturing.