SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Nuclear Research

Since the 1950s, nuclear power has contributed to meeting energy needs in many parts of the world. Yet throughout its history, the deployment of nuclear power and technologies has been highly controversial, with nuclear accidents, nuclear proliferation, high cost of nuclear power plants, nuclear terrorism and radioactive waste disposal all key concerns.

Over more than five decades, SPRU has undertaken important research on nuclear policy issues, from safety and waste disposal issues to those of cost and lack of independent policymaking.

Since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan, nuclear safety and nuclear energy policy has been extensively revisited in many countries, with many  scaling back their nuclear power. Germany plans to close all its reactors by 2022. Yet the UK Government remains enthusiastic about the most ambitious nuclear new build programme in Europe and continues to give unusual emphasis to nuclear power compared with other responses to meeting energy demands and mitigating climate change.

At SPRU, our academics continue to analyse the deep uncertainties and criticisms that remain around the UK’s nuclear ambitions, concerns that are understandable when the history of previous rounds of UK nuclear ambitions that failed to materialise are considered.

Nuclear submarines and links to civil nuclear

Nuclear infrastructures with joint civil and military rationales continue to be the main bone of contention in current global tensions around nuclear proliferation. With particular reference to the UK, but also focusing on other countries, SPRU research on this topic is illuminating an issue that has not previously been acknowledged in civil energy policy debates. This issue is, that the intensity of official commitments to civil nuclear power are to a large extent driven by military motivations around sustaining the industrial base required for the construction, maintenance and operation of nuclear propelled submarines. This work informs current debates in the UK and further afield regarding why in certain countries nuclear technologies continue to be prioritised over increasingly favourable low carbon alternatives.

Read more about SPRU research in this area.

Small Modular Reactors

In 2016 Gordon Mackerron and Phil Johnstone submitted evidence to the Welsh Affairs inquiry on nuclear new build. This focussed on the proposed Wylfa development. Mackerron and Johnstone outlined the limited new build experiences of ABWR reactors around the world, and uncertainties in the economics of Wylfa newydd. Proposals for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) for trawsfynydd were also discussed. Drawing on international experience, and economic and technical assessments, the significant risks of a UK SMR programme were highlighted. This evidence was submitted in written form as well as given at an oral evidence session on the 7thof March.

Nuclear safety and security

Official global reporting of nuclear accidents and incidents has been scrutinised by Professor Sovacool in collaboration with ETH Zurich. The research -  Of Disasters and Dragon Kings: A Statistical Analysis of Nuclear Power Incidents and Accidents - suggests that the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) is inappropriate in indicating the size of major nuclear incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukishima. A probabilistic analysis indicates that a Three Mile Island type or larger accident could occur every 10-20 years. The Three Mile Island accident ranked 5 out of the 7 maximum by INES and was where a reactor failure resulted in radioactive gases being released into the environment. The researchers liken this to the possibility of “Dragon King” events i.e. nuclear accidents that are extremely large and relate to the same system. This raises important issues in costing nuclear power and also ensuring improvements in the safety in the UK as well as internationally.