Nuclear industry in the UK: Back to the future?

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.

With the UK being one of few countries to construct nuclear-propelled submarines, research undertaken by Professor Andy Stirling, Emily Cox and Dr Johnstone at SPRU finds that workforce skills for the civilian and defence sectors in the UK appear to have some degree of mutual dependency. Sustaining the skills needed for nuclear submarines could therefore provide some explanation for the strength of the UK‘s commitment to nuclear new builds, while other (non-nuclear submarine) European countries, such as Germany, are moving to phase out nuclear. The differing democratic qualities of Germany and the UK have also been identified as a key factor in understanding the very different decisions taken by the two countries.

With the UK expected to ratify the Paris COP21 agreement by the end of the year, attention is on ambitious low-carbon energy transition pathways. In the UK, much is made of nuclear’s status in this respect. However SPRU research by Professor Stirling and Professor Benjamin Sovacool points out that strong nuclear commitment in some countries tends to crowd out investment in renewables, and therefore questions whether nuclear can play such a role.

nuclear-industry-in-the-uk-back-to-the-future-coverThis research briefing draws on nuclear policy issues raised by SPRU researchers throughout the unit’s history. One thing is clear: the UK government, and its nuclear industry, must remind itself of past lessons learned, to avoid repeating these problems in the future.

Download the Research Brief document:
Nuclear industry in the UK: Back to the Future? [PDF 603.35KB]


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