Tuesday, November 22, 2011

UK Government nuclear policy slammed by Science and Technology Committee

Government funding, R&D and its attitude to the industry nuclear are retarding the chances of a nuclear renaissance in Britain.

Moreover, the issue of the legacy of nuclear waste is not being addressed with sufficient rigour.

Even more surprising, the Department for Energy and Climate Change seems determined to relinquish any responsibility for funding, or helping to secure funding, to maintain nuclear R&D capabilities and associated expertise in the UK.

These are the extraordinary views of Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, which has just released a report on the nation's Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities.

The Committee, headed by Lord Krebs, was tasked with examining whether or not the Government is doing enough to maintain and develop UK nuclear research and development (R&D) capabilities to ensure that nuclear energy is a viable option for the future.

Its conclusion is: "they are not".

The Government's avowed policy is for 16 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity by 2025, possibly rising to up to 40% by 2050.

But Lord Krebs says, "We're setting out on this journey with no map, no driver, and no mechanic to fix the car if anything goes wrong".

The Lords do not consider that Britain is seen by the nuclear industry outside Britain as a serious player, as it has no way of maintaining the breadth of R&D capabilities and associated expertise needed to meet the UK's future energy policies.

This is because successive governments have let the situation slide due to the touchy political nature of the issue.

The result is that the expertise of nuclear scientists, engineers and regulators is being lost as they retire.

Lord Krebs says that the current approach is an "Argos catalogue" one, by which he means buying a new generation of ready-made nuclear power plants from overseas producers.

This means that the UK will lack the skilled staff necessary to regulate the new industry, deal with the legacy issues of waste disposal, or develop, let alone export, new technologies.

The report concludes that ministers don't even recognise that there is a problem. Lord Krebs labels this "complacent" and "lacking credibility".

For example, the Secretary of State for Energy told the Committee that he could envisage a future in which fossil fuels will dominate. This led the Committee to say, "This apparent inconsistency causes us to question whether the current policy framework is sufficient to encourage more secure, low-carbon sources such as nuclear energy and renewables".

The report criticises the confusion in Whitehall about which government department, BIS or DECC, is responsible for UK nuclear R&D capabilities and associated expertise.

This has "led to BIS and DECC tending to look to the other to tackle gaps in R&D capabilities and associated expertise".

They therefore recommend that "for the avoidance of doubt", DECC should be the lead department "in developing a national nuclear policy and R&D roadmap, outlining what R&D capabilities and associated expertise are necessary to support its policies".

This roadmap would detail the co-ordination of R&D and associated expertise, maintain a healthy research base to attract new people and skills, set up international collaboration partnerships, and provide industry with the clarity it needs to encourage them to invest in R&D and associated expertise in the UK.

It should then set up an independent Nuclear R&D Board, made up of experts drawn from the Government, industry and academia.

This board would advise, monitor and report to DECC on the development and implementation of the roadmap and the Government's nuclear strategy, as well as identifying R&D gaps and, where necessary, commission research to fill them.

Funding gap

The National Nuclear Laboratory, which is supposed to help reduce the cost of clean-up and decommissioning, maintain the skill level and attract new people to the industry, is unique amongst similar bodies in other countries in that it receives no funding from central Government.

The Committee wants to see its remit extended to cover applied long-term R&D, under the direction of a nuclear R&D Board, in areas for which no body currently has responsibility, such as advanced fuel recycling and reprocessing and deep geological disposal.

The Coalition is split on nuclear power however, with the LibDems adamant that public money should not be spent on developing new civil nuclear capability.

The Lords therefore hope that funding for this "might come" from the nuclear industry or the reallocation of funding from elsewhere. It suggests taking 1% of the £2.8 billion allocated to DECC to decommissioning and clean up each year.

Nuclear waste

The Lords draw attention as well to the "urgent need to deal with the clean-up of legacy waste" and notes that no body has responsibility for R&D on deep geological disposal.

They lament the lack of a long-term research programme to deal with the UK's plutonium stockpile.

But they also think that the way in which the NDA is developing the framework to deal with the problem of waste from new build nuclear power stations is inadequate, and call on the Government to "clarify the NDA's responsibilities" in this regard, and urgently put forward a credible solution.

On nuclear safety, in the light of the unremitting bad news from Fukushima (unsafe levels of caesium have now been found in Japanese rice for the first time), the report says that the Office for Nuclear Regulation should immediately set up a new Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee.

The last one was disbanded in 2008, with responsibility transferred to the Health and Safety Executive.

The prognosis for nuclear

In the light of this and other recent developments, such as the decision of some companies to withdraw from nuclear newbuild in Britain, and the escalating expense of new nuclear, I myself will be very surprisd to see more than one or two new nuclear power stations built in this country.

I have never been convinced either by carbon capture and storage.

The way forward is, with increasing clarity, energy efficiency and renewables.

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