Government urged to act on nuclear

Indecision from government over nuclear energy policy is harming the UK's position in the sector and will result in industry being unable to respond in future when decisions are finally made, the Lords Science and Technology Committee has said. In a report published last week, the Committee says the next government must decide what position the UK wants to adopt on new technology – whether it will take on a role of development and manufacture of the next generation of nuclear energy generation, or operate equipment developed overseas. "We urge the government to take a clear and firm view. Not making a timely decision could have serious consequences," the Committee's report says.

The report calls for strategic decisions to be made on the direction of the UK's nuclear development, to allow industry to act accordingly. A £250m R&D fund for new nuclear technology was announced by government in 2015, but has so far shown no sign of delivering on this promise.

The Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) was established in 2014 as a fixed-term advisory body to advise Ministers on nuclear R&D as part of development of government's Industrial Strategy. A successor body is urgently needed to ensure that best value is achieved from UK investment in nuclear R&D, the Lords committee says. 'The previously announced five year programme of £250 million for civil nuclear research should be allocated for research programmes judged to be of appropriate quality and relevance.' it says.

Government's failure to publish the results of its first competition for development of small modular reactors (SMR) is given as a prominent example of a lack of action. The competition, which was announced in Goerge Osborne's autumn 2015 spending review, invited interested companies and consortia to submit designs for SMRs. The Lords committee calls on publication of the results of the competition 'without delay'. "Deferring a decision on SMRs amounts to forgoing an opportunity that is unlikely to occur again. The Government’s failure to make a decision on its strategy for SMRs is a prime example of its inaction in the civil nuclear arena", the report says.

The chair of the Committe,  John Roundell Palmer, Earl of Selbourne, said: “The UK has long-standing and continuing commitments to civil nuclear energy and is now strategically positioned to capture opportunities, especially for Small Modular Reactors. The incoming government must end a cycle of indecision on nuclear policy and we urge it to take a clear, firm view on SMRs and wider civil nuclear strategy.

“We also found that the amount of UK funding for nuclear research, development and innovation is much lower than public funding levels in other leading nuclear nations, including the US, France and Japan. If the government’s aim is for the UK to be active across the main areas of nuclear R&D it needs to make significant investments in new technologies or we risk falling behind the rest of the world.”

Rolls Royce is understood to be among companies that have expressed interest in bidding for government funding to develop SMRs, along with Hitachi, Penultimate Power UK and others.

Not keeping to the stated timetable for the SMR competition has had a negative effect on the UK's nuclear sector, the Lords committee says. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government recognises the potential of small modular reactors to help meet the UK's energy needs, but industry for now remains in the dark over where government's plans have got to.