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Nuclear R&D cash needed to save UK energy goals

Decades of declining investment in nuclear research could put the UK at risk of failing to meet its energy goals, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has warned in its latest report.

The report, Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities, says that the UK is complacent about its nuclear R&D, and warns that other countries invest far more in the area.

Nuclear power may have to be expanded for the UK to meet its legally binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, the report suggests. To achieve this, the peers estimate the UK needs to increase its nuclear power capacity from 10–12 gigawatts to between 20 and 38GW.

But without increased investment in nuclear R&D and a “new stream of experts”, this goal could prove hard to meet.

“The UK’s expertise was built on past investments in research and a lack of investment over the last two decades means that the UK is now in danger of losing this expertise,” said John Krebs, chairman of the committee, in a statement.

“As a result we are in danger of placing ourselves in a position where we will be unable to ensure a safe and secure supply of nuclear energy up to 2050,” he added.

The committee urges the government to commission the Department of Energy and Climate Change to develop a long-term strategy for nuclear energy, including an R&D roadmap. A nuclear R&D board with representatives from industry, academia and government should be set up to oversee this work, it adds.

The report quotes numbers showing a steady decline in UK nuclear R&D funding since the beginning of the 1980s.

A roadmap would help to close gaps in the country’s nuclear R&D capabilities, such as in post-irradiated materials and disposing of the plutonium stockpile.

If the government is to make a credible case for meeting its energy goals, argues the report, it needs to increase funding for fission research “in the order of £20 million–£50m a year”.

Currently, it says, the research councils spend about £6.5m per year on fission research, which is only about 4 per cent of their total spend on energy R&D. In comparison, it adds, they spend some £34m a year on fusion research.

The committee also addresses the question of skills, and calls for a review of the provision of undergraduate, Masters and PhD courses to investigate whether they are enough to meet the “future needs”.

It warns that it takes years to develop a “significant cadre of suitably trained experts with industry experience and the sector is reliant on the research base to train these experts”.

“Government [has] stated that nuclear energy will play an important role in the electricity supply in the future,” said Krebs.

“If the government are serious about this commitment, they must take steps now to ensure that there is a new generation of experts, together with R&D, on which the nuclear industry, government and the regulator rely. Without action now, in our view, the government’s nuclear energy policy simply lacks credibility,” he added.