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UK nuclear development starts from the bottom up

Everybody loves to think they are special, and the nuclear industry is no exception – but is it really that different from other sectors of the economy?

Yes, it has to deal with many safety-critical process and technologies. Yes, it has to ensure the safe operation and decommissioning of plant, and the safe handling of waste. And yes, it has to raise billions of pounds of investment for new infrastructure, with no return for many years. But the same is true of aerospace, rail, chemicals, oil and gas – even offshore wind – and many other sectors.

And in contrast to many of these sectors, nuclear has an excellent safety record and has avoided more than two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from the UK over decades of operation.

It is time to stop treating the industry as a special case, and take a close look at what support it needs to meet its full potential for decarbonisation and energy security. The nuclear industry too must stop thinking it is uniquely special, and look at what it can learn from other sectors. 

This rethink starts at the top. Government is inextricably involved in major infrastructure decisions, no more so than in the power sector. The industry needs a clear pipeline of projects to drive investment, from gigawatt reactors at Hinkley and Sizewell through to new designs of small modular reactor (SMR) across the country.

But this alone will not secure the UK’s energy supply. We cannot afford to wait for SMR design and selection to conclude before investing in the industrial capability needed to deliver new power plant. We need to start at the bottom and build strong industrial foundations, backed by an industry-led programme of manufacturing innovation to increase capacity and drive down costs and time.

The Nuclear AMRC was set up to do just this. Our mission is to help UK companies win work in nuclear, and maximise UK content in high-value engineered products for nuclear projects.

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Image: Shutterstock / Drone Motion Stock

Alongside our R&D collaborations, we directly help hundreds of companies across the UK through our Fit For Nuclear (F4N) supply chain programme. To date, these companies have reported more than £2 billion worth of new contracts won with help from F4N, creating or safeguarding thousands of jobs.

But we need to do more. In 2022, we were asked to support the creation of Great British Nuclear, leading the development of the skills and supply chain workstream. The work highlighted significant interventions needed to deliver 24GW of new nuclear power by 2050 and which would also support other nuclear programmes. However, despite the launch of Great British Nuclear earlier this year, the identified interventions and investment have yet to materialise.

We’ve not been standing idle. Over the past year, we have carried out a comprehensive review of our F4N programme, listening to all companies at all tiers to understand what is needed to create a resilient and competitive supply chain.

The expanded programme will launch in the new year, giving smaller manufacturers access to additional training, networking, support in formal quality certification, and signposting to commercial opportunities.

However, the real prize comes from the interaction between our bottom-up F4N and the top-down approach of Great British Nuclear and the government. With an integrated supply chain strategy, we can identify gaps and bottlenecks across the whole industry, including decommissioning and defence. Working together, we can identify opportunities to build the capability, capacity and competitiveness needed to deliver all our nuclear programmes.

Understanding our domestic capability is essential if the UK is to minimise its exposure to international supply chains and global markets. Lead times for critical reactor components are measured in years, not months, and procurement processes and supply chain plans will be determined long before final investment decisions.

With an integrated supply chain strategy, we can identify gaps and bottlenecks across the whole industry, including decommissioning and defence. Quote

To really deliver the full benefit to the UK, we need the government to catch up and support a funded supply chain development programme which identifies weaknesses in the current sector, provides R&D, test and demonstration facilities to close the technical gaps, and develops the capabilities we need to build a secure and resilient supply chain.

The Nuclear AMRC was established at the start the gigawatt new build programme to do just this. AUKUS and the SMR programme mean that there is now a new imperative to do much more, using the learning and expertise we have developed to build a vibrant and thriving new nuclear industry in the UK.

The hard work starts at the bottom, and it needs to start now.

Chris Pook

Chris Pook is the policy director at the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

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