By Claire Carter, Research Assistant for Policy@Sussex
In the 50th anniversary year of SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex), Dr Phil Johnstone looks at the history of its research in the UK nuclear sector.
In light of the government’s recent go-ahead for the controversial Hinkley power station – and a commitment to allocating 50% of its energy research to nuclear over the next five years – Dr Johnstone’s report comes at a pivotal time.
Dr Johnstone argues that history is in danger of repeating itself, with plans in the UK to build at least three new reactor types, as well as plans for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that are commercially unproven. Nuclear economics has always been a hotly debated topic for SPRU’s Professor Gordon MacKerron, who was critical of the government’s optimistic cost appraisals for nuclear new builds in the 1980s and 1990s. Professor MacKerron explains that increases in costs, due to more complex reactor design and higher safety standards, are not offset by cost reductions achieved through experience.
In addition to nuclear economics, the handling of nuclear waste is another highly contentious area. In 2013, Cumbria County Council rejected an application for the siting of a geological waste disposal facility – an indisputable knock to public acceptability of an ambitious nuclear new build program.
It should further be noted that the UK has the largest stockpile in the world of civil plutonium (a by-product of spent uranium fuel) and there is yet to be government clarity on dealing with this issue. Professor MacKerron, who is Chair of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), has conducted an evaluation of the policy options for plutonium.
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