The Library briefing paper on New Nuclear Power (February 2021) sets out background information on nuclear power in the UK, including existing reactors, proposed reactors, nuclear research, and legacy management. Some additional information on nuclear fuel manufacturing is set out below.
Nuclear fuel manufacturing involves turning the raw material uranium into the different types of fuel required by different reactors to produce power. The UK now has 13 reactors (following the early closure this year of the two reactors at Dungeness), generating about a fifth of its electricity. These are mostly advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) though the reactor at Sizewell B is the UK’s only Pressurised water reactor (PWR – a type of Light water reactor or LWR). One new plant, a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR – a third generation PWR design) is under construction at Hinkley C. The Government supports the development of further nuclear reactors, including the proposal for further EPRs to be constructed at Sizewell C.
The majority of the fuel for the UK’s nuclear power stations is produced by Springfields (owned by Westinghouse) near Preston, Lancashire. Springfields sets out on its website the process for manufacturing fuels for AGRs, LWRs, and other products:
AGR fuel is a type of oxide fuel and is made from uranium dioxide powder. An AGR fuel element is made up of uranium oxide pellets stacked inside stainless steel tubes. These tubes are then grouped together in a graphite ‘sleeve’ to form a ‘fuel assembly’. An AGR assembly is made up of 36 steel tubes, each containing 64 pellets.
LWR fuel uses the same manufacturing process as for AGR fuel. The fuel pellets (which are smaller than an AGR pellet) are then loaded inside zirconium alloy tubes, which are about three metres long. We then pressurise and seal them and fit them inside a pre-assembled framework to form a fuel assembly. We then inspect the assembly before we send it to the reactor. A typical LWR fuel assembly is made up of 264 zirconium alloy tubes, each containing about 300 pellets.
As part of the 2017 Industrial Strategy, the Government developed “Sector deals” with industry; these are partnerships between the government and industry on sector-specific issues intended to promote productivity, employment, innovation and skills (the Industrial Strategy has been replaced with the 2021 Plan for Growth – but the Sector Deals remain in operation). In the Nuclear Sector Deal, published in June 2018, the Government referred to the importance of the UK’s nuclear fuel industry:
The government recognises the strategic national importance of maintaining its fuel capabilities and will work with UK nuclear fuel industry to ensure continued, commercial operation of these facilities to deliver future energy security as well as ensuring the UK nuclear fuel industry continues to deliver long-term UK economic benefit.
However there have also been reports that some jobs at the Springfields site may be at risk. Responding to the reports, the Unite union general secretary Gail Cartmail reportedly said “the threat to these jobs reinforces the need for the government to urgently bring forward its ‘mixed’ energy policy, including carbon-free nuclear, as a cornerstone of the much-heralded industrial strategy for the post-Brexit, post-Covid UK economy”.
Springfields is also the site of the National Nuclear Laboratory’s (NNL) Preston Laboratory. At this site, the NNL work on nuclear physics and advanced reactors, design and manufacture nuclear fuels, provide specialist analytical services and process chemistry. The Government recently announced the pilot of an Advanced Nuclear Skills and Innovation Campus that will serve as an innovation hub, with the intention of bringing together industry and academia to collaborate on projects which help develop and commercialise advanced nuclear technologies. It has been reported that the campus will be based on the Springfields site.
The site was mentioned during an Urgent Question in the Commons on 12 November 2018 on Nuclear Power: Toshiba: