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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

UK eyes future of nuclear power with fuel cycle and fusion investments


Graphic explaining how the uranium enrichment process works Photo: URENCO 
Graphic of the uranium enrichment process, in which the less abundant but fissionable isotope of uranium (U-235) is concentrated in UF6 gas

Photo: URENCO 

The UK government has made three announcements about nuclear fuel, a current nuclear project and nuclear fusion research.

First, it has announced a £196mn plan to develop a new nuclear fuel plant for advanced nuclear fission reactors. The high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel plant will be built at the existing URENCO nuclear fuel plant in Capenhurst, Cheshire.


The plant expansion is part of a £300mn project first announced in January to produce HALEU for domestic use as well as for export. It is said to be Europe’s first initiative to produce fuel for advanced reactors, such as advanced modular reactors.


URENCO’s facility will have the capacity to produce up to 10 t/y of HALEU by 2031. Currently, the only commercial supplier of this fuel is a state-owned organisation in Russia.


Last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: ‘Building our own uranium enrichment plant is essential if we want to prise Putin’s blood-soaked hands off Europe’s energy market. Russia has been the sole provider of this powerful nuclear fuel for too long and this marks the latest step in pushing him out of the energy market entirely.’


These plans have been in motion for some time. The UK government was involved in a nuclear fuel cycle declaration at last autumn’s COP28 summit, alongside the US, Canada, France and Japan, to ‘establish a resilient global uranium supply market free from Russian influence’. That agreement also mentioned pursuit of ‘at least $4.2bn in government-led and private investment in our five nations’ collective enrichment and conversion capacity over the next three years, with a view to catalyse private-sector finance’.


Elsewhere, government and industry are together investing up to £26mn to bring uranium conversion services capability back to the UK by the end of the decade.


HALEU fuel is enriched with between 10–19.75% of the fissionable uranium isotope U-235, compared to current fuel whose U-235 enrichment level is up to 5%. Production of highly-enriched uranium has been restricted for decades out of nuclear proliferation concerns.


Boris Schucht, CEO of URENCO, comments: ‘We welcome this government investment, which will help accelerate the development of a civil HALEU commercial market and in turn the development of the next generation of nuclear power plants. These plants will have even higher safety standards and lend themselves to quicker licensing and construction processes.’


The UK government notes: ‘HALEU is needed to power most advanced modular reactors which are crucial to meeting the UK’s ambition to quadruple nuclear capacity by 2050 – the biggest expansion in 70 years. Like small modular reactors, they can be made in factories and transform how power stations are built by making construction faster and less expensive.’


One of those chosen technologies is the high temperature gas reactor. In July 2023, National Nuclear Laboratory, the UK’s national laboratory for nuclear fission, in partnership with its Japanese counterpart, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, announced that it had secured government funding towards the design phase of the UK’s first modular HTR, the UKJ-HTR. A demonstration unit is expected to be built before 2030.


Sizewell C site licence
Turning to current technology, the civil nuclear power plant construction project Sizewell C has received a site licence from the UK nuclear regulator. Two outstanding matters that prevented the licence from being granted in 2022, related to the shareholders’ agreement and ownership of land at the site, have now been resolved, it reports.


Mark Foy, ONR’s Chief Nuclear Inspector and Chief Executive, says: ‘The licensing process is fundamental in confirming that operators of a nuclear site are ready and able to meet their obligations under the nuclear site licence, to protect their workforce and the public.’


The site licence was the first granted since Hinkley Point C in 2012. Like that project, Sizewell C consists of two 1,650 MWe EPR pressurised water reactors said to be capable of generating 7% of UK electricity needs. The Sizewell C plant replicates the Hinkley Point C design. Like Hinkley Point C, the other EPR construction projects in Europe (Olkiluoto 3 in Finland and Flamanville 3 in France) have suffered construction delays. The EPR was also installed at China’s Taishan 1 and 2.


Mina Golshan CBE, Safety, Security and Assurance Director at Sizewell C, says: ‘Securing a nuclear site licence is a show of confidence from our nuclear regulator that we have a suitable site, that we can achieve a safe design replicated from Hinkley Point C.’


The developer reports that earthworks at the site are now underway and the process to raise private equity from investors continues to make good progress. A final investment decision is due ‘in the coming months’.


Finally, the government is gearing up to select partners for a demonstration unit to generate low-carbon electricity from the other nuclear process, fusion, which has yet to be demonstrated commercially. On 22 May it will launch a competition for engineering and construction partners to build a pilot fusion plant – Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, STEP. They will work alongside UK Industrial Fusion Solutions (UKIFS), a wholly owned subsidiary of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). Partners would be awarded contracts late 2025/early 2026. The contracts will be phased, building progressively in line with the development of the prototype plant to be built at a decommissioned coal plant in West Burton, Nottinghamshire.