Nuclear fission

Research into issues concerning the generation of electricity by harnessing energy released when an atom’s nucleus splits. This research area includes waste management and nuclear decommissioning, fuel recycling and reprocessing, efficient and safer fuels, reactor plant life extension, advanced nuclear technologies, new nuclear builds, existing operations, regulation, public acceptability, and geological waste disposal.

Nuclear power is a key low-carbon power generation option, forming a significant part of UK electricity generation capacity. It will play an important role in the UK’s future low-carbon energy mix and meeting the Government’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions targets [Evidence source 3,5], EPSRC will therefore sustain the UK's research capabilities in this area.

The strategic direction of this Research Area depends on Government and industry in terms of policy and national infrastructure. The community should be responsive to evolving needs and contribute to the decision-making processes. EPSRC seeks to maintain and develop an effective international collaboration strategy and invest in research infrastructure requirements (National Nuclear User Facility, NNUF) to accelerate the implementation of technologies. To maintain the UK’s capabilities EPSRC will continue to identify and invest in skill and training gaps.

The research community will play an integral role in helping to deliver the Government’s ambitions including the building of new nuclear power stations planned in England and Wales, by overcoming new build, and decommissioning research challenges. In 2017 National Grid published Future Energy Scenarios calling for nuclear supplying over 30% of demand by 2050 [Evidence source 4]. To achieve this industry must develop cost competitive products, and ensure timely, cost effective delivery [Evidence source 9]. Thus, research is needed to underpin reactor design and development, monitoring, and asset decommissioning. International collaboration will be key to success, especially in creating economic value for the UK [Evidence source 9]. As ever public backing for nuclear is important to overcome challenges, as is working with regulators and policy makers [Evidence source 1].

By the end of the current Delivery Plan, we aim to:

  1. Have the community continuing to undertake multidisciplinary, highly collaborative research and training in this area, addressing the challenges of building, operating and decommissioning faced by current and future nuclear build programmes.
  2. Facilitate development of approaches for implementing safe, cost-effective clean-up, decommissioning and waste disposal of existing and future nuclear sites and facilities.
  3. Ensure capability is maintained in internationally recognised areas of UK strength (e.g. decommissioning, waste management, fuel reprocessing).
  4. Balance the diversity of highly skilled people across career stages to ensure areas of low capacity are bolstered.
  5. Facilitate impact acceleration and deployment of innovative solutions from the academic community, through closer links with industry, and other key stakeholders e.g. the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL)
  6. Continued engagement with key countries (e.g. Japan, USA and India) to access specialist facilities and sites of interest, and share resources and knowledge supporting research and development.
  7. Manage delivery of research infrastructure investment through the NNUF.
  8. Develop a holistic approach to nuclear research challenges, including integrating new perspectives generated by Robotics and AI investments.

The strategic focus for this Research Area takes into account the national research priorities identified by the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Energy Innovation Board, and challenges faced by the NDA and NNL [Evidence source 2-3,5,9-8].

Highlights:

Since 2006 there has been a sustained effort to ensure capacity re-build and the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy now recognises that nuclear energy plays an important role in decarbonisation and generating baseload electricity, as well as the need for expertise for decommissioning exiting facilities [Evidence source 5]. Government funding for Research and Development is delivered by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), primarily through EPSRC and the Nuclear Innovation Programme (NIP), launched by BEIS in 2016.

Nuclear Fission research is highly multidisciplinary, and the community includes engineers, chemists, physicists and biologists. Research in the area of robotics and autonomous systems, particularly around decommissioning and plant management has recently grown due to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Robotics Hub investments [Evidence source 6]. Overlaps occur with other Research Areas including Whole Energy Systems, Structural Engineering, Materials Engineering, Materials for Energy, Nuclear Fusion, Robotics, and Computing Modelling. The research base is now more fully linked with Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) activities.

Developing skills, leadership and infrastructure will be key to maintaining this. With much of the nuclear sector due to retire by 2025, there will be further significant skills gaps without continued mechanisms to retain specialised knowledge [Evidence source 7]. The area has seen growth in fellowships at the postdoctoral and early-career stages, encouraging talent retention. To maintain capacity across the broader sector, a steady flow of PhD-qualified nuclear scientists will be needed, partly supplied by the Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) and other mechanisms (e.g. industrial involvement and Postdoctoral and early career fellowships).

The community has self-organised and built a strong, relatively balanced portfolio of fundamental research funded primarily through managed calls. To deliver maximum impact, the UK universities research base now has strong academic-industrial links. Key impacts include, for example, deployment of innovative waste and decommissioning solutions at Sellafield [Evidence source 2]. EPSRC fosters international collaborations, currently focusing on fundamental research in decommissioning and autonomous systems with Japan, South Korea, USA and India.

Over the last Delivery Plan period, specialist facilities (e.g. NNUF) have been established, and new additional funds made available to EPSRC to support them. Previously funded NNUF facilities are now being used, mostly at capacity, and are already producing globally important science.

This area principally contributes to EPSRC delivery plan challenges of attaining energy security and developing a low carbon future. Investment in this area ensures a reliable, and resilient electricity supply, which in turn underpins the UKs ability to prosper, and has huge lasting societal and economic impact.

The Productive and Resilient Nation Outcomes are most relevant to this area, with the following ambitions being particularly applicable:

P1: Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies

This research area is expected to meet challenges across the nuclear fuel cycle, advanced nuclear technologies.

P2: Ensure affordable solutions for national needs

This area is expected to supply solutions to reduce the costs of reactor build and decommissioning, contributing to decarbonisation of the energy system.

R1: Achieve energy security and efficiency

This area will help provide a baseline, non-renewable source of power generation.

R2: Ensure a reliable infrastructure which underpins the UK economy

This area will improve the core infrastructure elements needed to maintain a reliable energy supply.

  1. Nuclear Industry Council, Nuclear Energy and Society (PDF), (2014)
  2. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Strategy Document (PDF), (2016)
  3. HM Government, The Clean Growth Strategy, (2017)
  4. National Grid, Future Energy Scenarios (PDF), (2017)
  5. HM Government, Industrial Strategy Nuclear Sector Deal (PDF), (2018)
  6. HM Government, Robotics for a Safer World (2018)
  7. Nuclear Skills Strategy Group, Strategic Plan Update, (2018)
  8. Committee on Climate Change, Net Zero: The UK’s Contribution to Stop Global Warming, (2019)
  9. NIRAB, Annual Report 2019 (PDF), (2019)
  10. BEIS, Energy Needs Innovation Assessment, (2019)

Research area connections

This diagram shows the top 10 connections between Research Areas within the EPSRC research portfolio. The depth of the segment relates to value of grants and the width of the segment relates to the number of grants shared by those two Research Areas. Please click to see the related Research Area rationale.

Visualising our Portfolio (VoP)
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EPSRC support by research area in Nuclear Fission (GoW)
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Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Victoria Mico
Job title: Portfolio Manager
Section / Team: Energy
Organisation: EPSRC
Telephone: 01793 444562