UK declares biggest nuclear revival in 70 years with plans for new reactors and fuel production

Article by Adam Duckett

THE UK government wants to build a new large-scale nuclear plant and will invest £310m (US$394m) in advanced fuel production and skills in a bid to bolster energy security.

The announcements released throughout this week are designed to deliver on the existing commitment for nuclear power to generate 25% of the UK’s electricity by 2050. This morning, the government published its Civil Nuclear Roadmap, setting out plans to build a new large nuclear power station the size of Hinkley Point C to help meet this target, which involves almost quadrupling nuclear power output from 6.5 GW today to 24 GW.

The government also wants to secure 37 GW worth of investment decisions in new nuclear every five years from 2030 to 2044. This includes attracting investments in conventional large-scale water-cooled plants, small modular reactors (SMRs) that chiefly use similar techniques but can be built in factories to reduce project costs, and advanced modular reactors (AMRs) that use novel fuels and coolants.   

Claire Coutinho, secretary of state for energy security and net zero, said: “We’re making the biggest investment in domestic nuclear energy in 70 years. Our £300m plan to produce advanced nuclear fuel in the UK will supply nuclear plants at home and overseas.”

Advanced fuel production

Most reactors operating today are light water reactors. These use fuel that has been enriched to contain around 25% of the uranium-235 isotope which contributes to the fission process. By switching enrichment processes from gaseous diffusion to centrifugal techniques, it is economically viable to enrich fuels beyond 5%, producing high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel for new reactors. This allows for longer operating cycles, smaller reactors, and produces less radioactive waste.

Currently, only Russia and China have the plants needed to produce HALEU at scale, though the US is also racing to catch up. Centrus Energy announced in October that it has begun producing fuel at demonstration scale in Ohio and it delivered the first batch of fuel to the US government in November.

The UK will spend £300m establishing HALEU enrichment and deconversion capabilities by the end of the decade. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has been instructed to make space at the Springfields nuclear fuels fabrication site in northwest England to support this.

“We recognise the unique importance of the UK’s two existing nuclear fuel sites, at Capenhurst and Springfields, in delivering our nuclear ambitions, and that we may need to give particular consideration to the nature of these sites. We also recognise that we may need to consider whether additional nuclear fuel sites are required,” the roadmap says.

Through the Nuclear Fuels Fund it will invest £6m in a uranics innovation centre at the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in partnership with UK universities to support the development of front-end fuels capabilities and expertise. The NNL will receive a further £3.35m to produce a concept design for a HALEU deconversion test facility. And £800,000 will be spent on a siting study for new nuclear fuel production facilities.


The government acknowledged that the lengthy pause since the UK’s newest nuclear plant was completed in 1995 has led to a loss of key skills. The employer-led Nuclear Skills Strategy Group estimates that the nuclear workforce will need to double over the next 20 years – supporting 80,000 additional skilled jobs – to meet targets.

Reacting to the roadmap, Fiona Rayment, president of the Nuclear Institute, said: “Reaching 24 GW by 2050 is achievable but challenging and recognising the need to address the skills and capability challenges in enabling this is key.

Last year, the government launched a Nuclear Skills Taskforce and expects its recommendations will be published early this year. These are expected to include calls for an increase in apprenticeships and industrial placements, and for more bursary schemes for STEM subjects to boost the number of graduates entering the nuclear sector.

Spiralling costs and delays

Delays at Hinkley Point C mean the plant could start operations two years behind schedule or perhaps even later

Construction in the nuclear sector – especially of large-scale nuclear plants – has been plagued by huge cost overruns and completion delays. When EDF agreed to build Hinkley Point C in the southwest of England in 2016 the cost was £18bn and it was scheduled to begin generating power in 2025. Estimated costs have since spiralled to more than £32bn and there are reports that plans to begin operations in 2027 could be delayed further.

These issues, along with the need to process and store radioactive waste produced by nuclear power, have attracted fierce opposition, and calls for the government to prioritise investment in renewables. Proponents argue that nuclear provides fossil-free baseload power and boosts energy security as it reduces reliance on imports of gas needed to balance intermittent energy supplies.

The government wants to introduce new regulation to speed up nuclear projects. This includes allowing regulators to assess projects while designs are being finalised and working more effectively with overseas regulators assessing the same technology. Ministers also plan to organise a “hackathon” that will bring together representatives from the sector to come up with ideas on how to accelerate new projects while maintaining the highest levels of safety and security. The government has also opened two consultations on siting new plants and encouraging private sector investment in advanced technologies.

Advanced reactors

While developers of SMRs have promised to overcome the delays of larger projects, recent headlines have put a dent in these claims. In November, NuScale, the only company to have received design approval from US regulators for an SMR, cancelled its first project due to a lack of interest. Earlier this week it cut more than 150 jobs to save costs and “align resources with core priorities” which include developing planned projects in Romania, Poland and elsewhere in the US.

Last year, the UK established a body called Great British Nuclear which is responsible for overseeing the rollout of SMRs. Commenting alongside the launch of the Civil Nuclear Roadmap, Gwen Parry-Jones, CEO of Great British Nuclear, said: “Since Great British Nuclear started the SMR technical selection process last July, we have moved strongly forward and are on track to complete vendor selection later this year. Shortly, we will invite the six companies we have selected to submit tenders.”

As well as power, these advanced reactors could provide heat for heavy industry and support the production of hydrogen and desalination.

Tom Greatrex, CEO of the Nuclear Industry Association, said: “We welcome the publication of the roadmap – the commitment to explore a further large-scale project beyond Sizewell C in parallel with the deployment of SMRs is very welcome. We will need both large and small nuclear at scale and at pace for our energy security and net zero future.”

Jess Ralston, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, told Business Green: “The government investing millions of pounds of public money in nuclear should hopefully unleash further private sector investment and experts generally agree that we’ll need some new nuclear in the years ahead. The challenge is, the industry has a track record of running over budget and behind schedule, so this does little to boost the UK’s energy security any time soon. More offshore wind and insulating homes would help cut the UK’s ties with volatile gas prices, but the government fumbled the last offshore wind auction and has driven down the number of homes it’s helping to insulate in the past couple of years.”

Shutdowns delayed

Meanwhile, to keep generating power from the UK’s existing fleet of nine operating reactors, EDF announced this week that it will look to extend the lives of two reactors – Heysham 2 and Torness – that were set to shut down in 2028.  Last year, EDF extended the life of Hartlepool and Heysham 1 by two years to 2026.

Statutory outages and station closures of the UK’s ageing reactor fleet saw nuclear output fall 15% last year.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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