Nuclear fission

Research into issues concerning the generation of electricity by harnessing energy released when an atom’s nucleus splits. This research area includes waste management, decommissioning, regulation, public acceptability, existing operations, new nuclear build, advanced reactor technology, the fuel cycle and geological waste disposal.

We will maintain our investment in this area as a proportion of the EPSRC portfolio. Nuclear power is a key low-carbon power generation option, already forming a significant part of UK electricity generation capacity (Evidence source 1). It has an important role to play in the UK’s future low-carbon energy mix and the potential to impact positively on the government’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions targets.

The research community will play an integral role in delivering the government’s innovative, ambitious current and future nuclear fleet programmes. The UK knowledge base will require broadening and diversifying to overcome fundamental research challenges and skills shortages, and to develop cost-effective technologies that meet needs (Evidence source 2,3,4).

By the end of the current Delivery Plan, we aim to:

  • Have a multidisciplinary, highly collaborative portfolio of research and training in this area which addresses the challenges of building, operating and decommissioning faced by current/future nuclear build programmes
  • Facilitate development of approaches for implementing safe, cost-effective clean-up, decommissioning and waste disposal of existing and future nuclear sites and facilities
  • Ensure capability is maintained in internationally recognised areas of UK strength (e.g. decommissioning, waste management, fuel reprocessing)
  • Investigate the balance and diversity of highly skilled people across career stages to ensure areas of low capacity are bolstered
  • Facilitate impact acceleration and deployment of innovative solutions from the academic community through closer links with industry, other users, network groups and key stakeholders, e.g. the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL)
  • Continue to engage internationally with key countries (e.g. Japan, USA and India) to supply and build research knowledge
  • Manage delivery of research infrastructure requirements and likely investments through the National Nuclear User Facilities (NNUF) when additional funding is released

The strategic focus for this research area takes into account the national research priorities identified by the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB), the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Low Carbon Innovation Coordination Group (LCICG) nuclear sub-group, and challenges faced by the NDA and NNL (Evidence source 5,6,7,8,9).

Highlights:

Over the last decade, together with other public bodies, we have invested to rebuild a coherent UK nuclear research community from the low base to which it had fallen. As a result, the UK is now recognised as internationally leading with unique capability in decommissioning and waste management, fuel reprocessing, safety analysis and the management of severe accidents. This excellence has been underlined by the introduction of multi-phase partnerships with Japan, USA and India, for example.

Nuclear Fission research is highly multidisciplinary with strong interactions to areas such as materials for energy applications, materials engineering and robotics. The research base is beginning to be more fully linked with Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) activities.

The area has seen growth in fellowships at the postdoctoral and early-career stages, encouraging talent retention. With 55% of the nuclear sector due to retire by 2025, there will be further significant skills gaps without continued mechanisms to retain specialised knowledge (Evidence source 10). Closure of the UK’s only fuel reprocessing site means that, without intervention, more skills may be lost (Evidence source 11). To maintain capacity across the broader sector, a steady flow of PhD-qualified nuclear scientists will be needed, partly supplied by the two Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) and other mechanisms (e.g. industrial involvement).

The community has self-organised and built a strong, relatively balanced portfolio of fundamental research funded primarily through managed calls. To deliver maximum impact, the UK universities research base has built strong academic-industrial links with the NNL, the NDA and other industrial partners. Key impacts include, for example, deployment of innovative waste and decommissioning solutions at Sellafield. The research base has further potential to lead transformative research, as recognised by the government with a programme of innovation demonstration. With continued government support and the significant economic benefits of new build, the UK industry will be relied on to design, build and operate the new reactor fleet (Evidence source 12-18).

Over the last Delivery Plan period, specialist facilities (e.g. the NNUF) have been established with additional funds made available to EPSRC to support them. These facilities are now being used, mostly at capacity, and are already producing globally important science.

This area contributes significantly to EPSRC Outcomes on a range of timescales, and mostly to Productive and Resilient Nation Outcomes. The following Ambitions are particularly relevant:

P1: Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies

This research area is expected to meet challenges across the nuclear fuel cycle, while contributing to decarbonisation of the energy system.

P2: Ensure affordable solutions for national needs

This area is expected to supply solutions to reduce the costs of reactor build and decommissioning.

R1: Achieve energy security and efficiency

This area will help provide a baseline, non-renewable source of power generation.

R2: Ensure a reliable infrastructure which underpins the UK economy

This area will improve the core infrastructure elements needed to maintain a reliable energy supply.

Research area connections

This diagram shows the top 10 connections between Research Areas within the EPSRC research portfolio. The depth of the segment relates to value of grants and the width of the segment relates to the number of grants shared by those two Research Areas. Please click to see the related Research Area rationale.

Maintain

We aim to maintain this area as a proportion of the EPSRC portfolio.

Visualising our Portfolio (VoP)
Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with the EPSRC portfolio and data relationships.

EPSRC support by research area in Nuclear Fission (GoW)
Search EPSRC's research and training grants.

Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Sarah Ashwood
Job title: Portfolio Manager
Department: Engineering and Healthcare Technologies
Organisation: EPSRC
Telephone: 01793 444301