The nuclear industry is always innovating – from use of advanced robotics to aid decommissioning activity to the development of efficient reactor technology.

© National Nuclear Laboratory

Driving innovation

From accident tolerant fuel to robotics, the nuclear industry is one that drives innovation. Unique settings at Sellafield and across the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority have forced companies to find innovative ways to tackle challenging and in some cases hazardous tasks.

Robotics for instance reduce human exposure to harmful radiation and speed up programmes of work, ultimately saving money. In the UK, small and medium sized companies across the industry have embraced the technological opportunities across the UK’s decommissioning mission.

The National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) carries out research across the whole fuel cycle – from advanced fuels and reactor technology to waste management techniques and even developing new power sources for space probes from nuclear waste. NNL also has facilities able to handle the most radioactive nuclear materials on the planet.

The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre works specifically with companies to come up with innovative new methods to compete on cost, quality and delivery. Their core research and development capabilities cover machining, welding and cladding, metrology and inspection and visualisation.

Small Modular Reactors

The UK aims to develop small modular reactors which can be built in a factory and deployed quickly around the country to supply heat and power. Estimates put the potential of the global SMR market at £250-£400 billion by 2035.

SMRs could potentially be cheaper than conventional large reactors, and they may be able to be exported around the world. Manufactured in a factory, complete components are transported to the site for final assembly. Their compact size allows for greater siting flexibility in comparison to traditional reactors.

SMRs could put the UK at the forefront of global nuclear research and development, bringing important commercial and industrial benefits, including assisting economic and industrial growth in the UK, and real export potential.

With UK intellectual property and building capacity within the supply chain, high value jobs and a strong manufacturing legacy could result.

In 2015 the Government allocated funding of £250 million for nuclear research and development, including SMR technology and has said it will issue a roadmap for SMR development by the end of 2016 and begin a competition to determine the UK potential.

© Sellafield Limited

Plutonium

The reprocessing of spent fuel from civil nuclear power generation has resulted in a plutonium legacy. The NIA is calling for the Government to take action to reuse this as a fuel in a new breed of power stations.

The UK has safely and securely managed its plutonium stockpile over many decades. On completion of reprocessing operations, the UK stockpile will grow to 140 tonnes of plutonium within the next few years – the largest in the world.

In 2012 the Government held a consultation on the ‘Management of the UK’s plutonium stock’; in its response to the consultation, the Government stated its preferred option was management via reuse.

In order to maintain progress in innovation the NIA would like to see:

  • Government policy to deliver a credible solution to dealing with the plutonium stockpile
  • Adequate funding to allow Government and the developers to explore the available options for reuse in detail
  • A cross party consensus for a long term project to reuse plutonium

Fusion research

Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) is the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research. CCFE is based at Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire, and is owned and operated by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

The UK fusion programme at Culham is centred on the innovative  Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) experiment and employs around 150 people. The programme is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the European Union under the EURATOM treaty.  MAST is currently undergoing a major upgrade – the new MAST Upgrade device will be operational in late 2017.

In addition, CCFE hosts the world’s largest magnetic fusion experiment, Joint European Torus (JET) on behalf of its European partners. The JET facilities are collectively used by European fusion scientists, co-ordinated by a programme management unit at Culham. JET is situated next to the UK fusion laboratory. Around 500 people are employed at the JET facilities, with around 350 European scientists visiting each year to conduct research, and many more from outside Europe.

© Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

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