Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Nuclear fission

Research into issues concerning the generation of electricity by harnessing energy released when an atom’s nucleus splits.

Partners involved:
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The scope and what we're doing

This research area looks into issues concerning the generation of electricity by harnessing energy released when an atom’s nucleus splits.

It 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
  • geological waste disposal.

Nuclear power is a key low-carbon power generation option, forming a significant part of the UK’s 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. 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 to accelerate the implementation of technologies through the National Nuclear User Facility. 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 for 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. To achieve this, industry must develop cost-competitive products, and ensure timely, cost-effective delivery. 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.

As ever, public backing for nuclear is important to overcome challenges, as is working with regulators and policy makers.

Aims

Collaborative research

Our first aim is to have the community continue 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.

Clean up, decommissioning and waste disposal

We are facilitating the development of approaches for implementing safe, cost-effective clean up, decommissioning and waste disposal of existing and future nuclear sites and facilities.

Maintain UK capability

We will ensure that capability is maintained in internationally recognised areas of UK strength – for example, decommissioning, waste management, fuel reprocessing.

Diversity of skills

We aim to balance the diversity of highly skilled people across career stages to ensure areas of low capacity are bolstered.

Closer links with industry

We are facilitating impact acceleration and deployment of innovative solutions from the academic community, through closer links with industry, and other key stakeholders including the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL).

Working with other countries

We also encourage continued engagement with key countries, like Japan, the US and India, to access specialist facilities and sites of interest, and share resources and knowledge supporting research and development.

Delivery of infrastructure

We aim to manage delivery of research infrastructure investment through the National Nuclear User Facility.

Robotics and artificial intelligence

Our aim is to develop a holistic approach to nuclear research challenges, including integrating new perspectives generated by robotics and artificial intelligence investments.

Strategic focus

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 Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and National Nuclear Laboratory.

Why we're doing it

Since 2006 there has been a sustained effort to ensure capacity rebuild. 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 existing facilities.

Government funding for research and development is delivered by:

  • Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA)
  • UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – primarily through EPSRC
  • Nuclear Innovation Programme (NIP).

Nuclear fission research community

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 grown due to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Robotics Hub investments.

Overlaps occur with other research areas including:

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.

Filling the skills gaps

Developing skills, leadership and infrastructure will be key to maintaining the research community. 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.

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 and other mechanisms, such as industrial involvement, and postdoctoral and early career fellowships.

The research portfolio

The community has self-organised and built a strong, relatively balanced portfolio of fundamental research funded primarily through managed funding opportunities.

To deliver maximum impact, the UK universities research base now has strong industrial links. Key impacts include deployment of innovative waste and decommissioning solutions at Sellafield.

EPSRC fosters international collaborations, currently focusing on fundamental research in decommissioning and autonomous systems with Japan, South Korea, the US and India.

Research facilities

Specialist facilities have been established, and new additional funds made available to EPSRC to support them. The National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF) is one of these.

Previously funded NNUF facilities are now being used, mostly at capacity, and are already producing globally important science.

View evidence sources used to inform our research strategies.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with the EPSRC portfolio and data relationships. Find out more about research area connections and funding for Nuclear fission.

Find previously funded projects on Grants on the Web.

Who to contact

Andrew Eustace

Email: andrew.eustace@epsrc.ukri.org

Telephone: 07738 260033

Last updated: 6 April 2022

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