Nuclear finds a new energy

A re-energised nuclear power sector is looking to the future with renewed confidence that it has its part to play in the UK’s low carbon future.

Lancashire is set to play a major role in that future, as the government invests in developing the next generation of nuclear energy technology in its efforts to meet its 2050 net zero carbon target.

The new energy around nuclear follows years of uncertainty about its future as a UK power source. Delays over new power stations, stalled projects, concerns over cost and the rise of wind and solar power had put the sector on the back burner.

Westinghouse’s Springfields site, near Preston, has been manufacturing nuclear fuel for more than 75 years. It currently provides the fuel for more than 30 per of the UKs low carbon electricity.

The historic site, which today employs around 800 people, is set to begin a new chapter in its story. Its US owners are creating a Clean Energy Technology Park here, describing it as “the place to invest, innovate and grow nuclear in the UK.”

That announcement was followed by £10m of government funding handed to Westinghouse to develop new nuclear energy technology. That work on a ‘Generation IV nuclear power plant, based on lead-cooled fast reactor technology, will take place in Lancashire.

There are other signs of a growing nuclear renaissance. Plans have been submitted for two nuclear power plants at the Moorside site in Cumbria, which could also create opportunities and jobs in Lancashire.

People are waking up to the role nuclear can play in a balanced, clean energy system in the UK

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also spoken in the Commons of his support for new nuclear power.

It’s all good news for the Springfields technology park, which aims to be a centre of innovation for advanced nuclear technologies, allowing developers, supply chain businesses and academics located there to work collaboratively.  

The project, supported by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NLL), will also be a centre of excellence for the management of nuclear materials, complementing Westinghouse’s existing nuclear manufacturing facilities there.

The sales pitch for the new park is impressive. It has an established nuclear site licence; environmental permits allowing a broad range of activities; large areas of land available for development; access to world-class people and facilities and regulatory and compliance support.

It also has local support and is welcomed by union leaders and politicians. Fylde MP Mark Menzies said: “This will ensure the site remains at the forefront of advancements in nuclear technology, providing highly skilled jobs, significant economic benefits and enabling innovation to flourish in the North West.

Kirsty Armer, director Westinghouse Government Services UK, believes the collaborative innovation hub can play a role in the country’s post-Covid recovery.

She adds: “We offer a unique proposition for companies related to clean energy looking to co-locate, not least the fact we are a nuclear licensed site. It is going to be a really exciting place to come to work.

Kirsty also points out that as well as supporting the development of new technologies, Springfields has important roles to play supplying fuels for nuclear reactors and in the recycling of uranium.

The 80-hectare Springfields sits at the heart of the North-West Nuclear Arc (NWNA), a network of nuclear sites stretching from Cumbria to North Wales.

They incorporate all the facilities and capabilities across the whole nuclear lifecycle - from fuels, to energy production and onto the management of waste and decommissioning.

Lindsay Roche, Westinghouse’s director of government affairs UK, says: “Lancashire  sits right at the heart of the Nuclear Arc. We have an awful lot of knowledge and a huge eco-system of supply chain companies supporting these strategic national assets.”

She points to the research work of Lancashire’s universities and the NLL Fuel Centre of Excellence, which is sited at Springfields.

And she says: “We want to build on what we have already established. The centre will bring together this knowledge and expertise.”

Lindsay adds: “People are waking up to the role nuclear can play in a balanced, clean energy system in the UK.

“It is not just about power to generate electricity, or power generation, it is also about how we decarbonize our transport system, it is about domestic heating and how people will move to hydrogen in the future.”

NWNA has been stepping up its efforts promoting the value of the region’s nuclear cluster and the role it can play, not only in the nation’s low-carbon future but also in the government’s levelling-up agenda and post-Covid recovery.

Its message centres on nuclear as a key contributor to a mixed clean energy system as well as its other economic and social benefits. Al Mather, NWNA programme director, believes it is a message that is getting through.

She says: “These are very exciting times. If you had spoken to me 18 months ago, I wouldn’t have thought we’d have all this going on across the North of England and North Wales.”

She says: “We have fuel production; we have the R&D and innovation, as well as the waste management and decommissioning skills and expertise. It is a unique nuclear cluster – the challenge has been to join it up.

Nuclear energy must overcome public scepticism and fears over safety and environmental groups have been anti-nuclear in their stance.

Al’s response is to describe it as “clean sustainable energy that doesn’t cost the earth financially or from an environmental perspective.”

She says: “We need to change people’s views of the nuclear industry. That is slowly happening. There is a greater acceptance now from some environmentalists than in the past.

And she adds: “It has a massive role to play in providing clean, sustainable energy for the UK in order for us to meet our 2050 target. Without nuclear it is not going to happen and we have got to get real about this.

That includes recognising that to produce hydrogen, heralded as a clean fuel of the future, on a large scale you need a large source of energy.

Al says: “Nuclear is not just about putting the kettle on. We have great knowledge here when it comes to areas such as waste management and we need to do more to export those skills.

“It also fits in with the need for large scale infrastructure investments as part of the levelling up agenda.”

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