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UK announces major nuclear and fusion energy plans to ‘push Russia out of global energy market’

10 May 2024

The UK has announced plans to become the first European country to develop advanced nuclear fuel – and to lead the way in fusion energy.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

The UK will be the first European nation to produce advanced nuclear fuel – a market currently dominated by Russia – to help fuel nuclear power plants at home and abroad. This is part of the government plan to push Putin out of the global energy market and drive down energy bills.

The UK will build Europe’s first facility to power future nuclear reactors, with the aim to isolate Russia from global energy markets, boost British energy security and provide reliable, affordable energy.

The Government is awarding £196 million to Urenco to build a uranium enrichment facility. This will produce fuel by 2031 that would be ready to export or use domestically, and could power UK homes in the next decade. 

The Government claims “it will put an end to Russia’s reign” as the only commercial producer of high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) and ensure other countries are not reliant on Russian exports.

The new facility is also expected to support around 400 highly skilled jobs, helping to boost the local supply chain and grow the economy. Located at Capenhurst in Cheshire, this will cement the status of the North-West of England as a world leader in nuclear fuel production, the Government says. 

The move builds on the Prime Minister’s “national endeavour” to secure the future of the UK’s nuclear industry – investing at least £763 million in skills, jobs, and education.

The UK is also investing in fusion energy development, as engineering and construction companies will be invited on to bid for up to £600 million to build the first commercially viable fusion prototype power plant at a former coal plant in Nottinghamshire. Fusion could generate a near-limitless source of clean electricity, securing the UK’s long-term energy independence.

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.

The wider future of British nuclear remains a critical national endeavour – guaranteeing nuclear and energy security, and reducing energy bills for Brits.”

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.

These advanced reactors are more efficient and use novel fuels, coolants, and technologies to generate low-carbon electricity. Their high heat output means they can also be used to decarbonise industry, produce hydrogen for transport or heat for homes. 

Urenco’s facility will have the capacity to produce up to 10 tonnes of HALEU per year by 2031. When fabricated into fuel, 10 tonnes of HALEU could contain as much energy as over one million tons of coal.

The funding is part of the £300 million HALEU programme announced in January this year. Urenco, which is part-owned by the UK government and renowned for nuclear enrichment services, will co-fund the facility.

The programme builds on commitments made at COP28 which saw the G7 nuclear nations or ‘Sapporo 5’ – Canada, Japan, France, the UK and the US – commit to increasing uranium production, as they are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s nuclear fuel conversion and enrichment capability.

Meanwhile, the UK was the first country in the world to legislate for commercial fusion regulation, with the aim of strengthening the UK as a competitive location for companies to invest.

A consultation launched on 8 May proposes designating all fusion plants as nationally significant infrastructure projects that will be assessed by the Planning Inspectorate and ultimately decided on by the Secretary of State for Energy.

Fusion power creates nearly four million times more energy for every kilogram of fuel than burning coal, oil or gas.

Investment in the fusion technology of the future will help to create jobs, grow the economy, and strengthen the country’s energy security – delivering a cleaner energy system that will benefit future generations and bring the UK even closer to connecting fusion energy to the grid by the 2040s.

Paul Methven, CEO of UK Industrial Fusion Solutions, responsible for the delivery of the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), said: “We are looking towards a very significant milestone for STEP in the next two weeks as we are set to launch our search for industrial partners in engineering and construction who will join us in designing and delivering the STEP prototype plant at West Burton. 

“This will demonstrate that fusion energy can work, and through that endeavour, we will develop an industry that can deliver commercial fusion for decades beyond.

“The launch of formal consultation on a National Policy Statement for fusion energy is very welcome and an important milestone in the journey towards a new energy source, deployed in the right way. 

“It reflects the UK’s proactive leadership in fusion energy by putting in place the critical enablers that all fusion developments will need, and in a way that will bring communities and the public along.”

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