ON A GREY RAINY LANCASHIRE day the UK’s wettest February on record drew to a close. Westinghouse struck a sunnier note when it announced a significant new direction for its Springfields fuel manufacturing site. The vision for the nuclear licensed site is to become a hub for innovative and collaborative research into the nuclear fuel cycle. Brian Nixon, Westinghouse’s Springfields managing directior of fuel operations, invited an audience of nuclear technology developers, supply chain companies and academics to collaborate in a new venture, the Springfields Clean Energy Technology Park (CETP). The company is offering access to the facilities of the nuclear licensed site to organisations interested in developing advanced nuclear fuel nuclear materials management, storage, packaging, transport, consignment or waste treatment.

Kirsty Armer, director of Westinghouse Government Services UK, said that collaborations at CETP have an important role to play in meeting the UK’s ‘net zero by 2050’ carbon ambitions. She said, “Together we will develop advanced new nuclear technologies including SMR, Gen IV, fusion and other technologies.” The ambition for the park is to become a collaborative innovation hub and a ‘one stop shop’ for nuclear materials management. She called for collaborators to co-locate on the site to develop new projects.

Craig Lester, deputy director Advanced Nuclear Technology at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said that his department sees Springfields as a key strategic site enabling the nuclear industry role in meeting government’s commitment to net zero. Lester said Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories, which focuses on collaborative research and development to support and advance nuclear technology, was the model for Springfields and promised that a forthcoming Energy White Paper (ie policy document) will outline a broader role for nuclear to include heat for industrial processes, hydrogen and synthetic fuels production and nuclear medicine (treatment and diagnostics).

The UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) Fuel Centre of Excellence (NFCE) is already at Springfields. The site licence allows operations up to 100% uranium-235 enrichment and it houses research on the design and manufacture of nuclear fuels, including metallic fuel, oxide fuel, nitrite fuel and carbide fuel. It is now a world leader in accident-tolerant fuel. The facilities include an active rig hall for batch processing; analytical laboratories (low and intermediate level activity material); waste processing and analytical technique development; and fuel development and testing capability.

Paul Howarth, chief executive of NNL is an enthusiastic supporter of the CETP concept, calling it, “a fantastic opportunity for the Springfields site”, which he identifies as a strategic national asset and “probably the most versatile site in the UK nuclear estate.” Howarth says fuel lies at the heart of nuclear. He said “Where does the fuel come from, how does it perform in the reactor and what happens to it afterwards? It’s really important that we understand these issues.”

The UK has a heritage as a fuel cycle nation and Howarth said “We need to get back to that and take a world leading stance.”

From war time munitions to advanced nuclear fuels

Springfield as a nuclear site dates back to March 1946, when the government decided that the UK’s new nuclear fuel fabrication services would be housed at its former war-time munitions factory near Preston in Lancashire. Under the direction of the Ministry of Supply, Springfields produced its first uranium fuel in 1948. It was the world’s first commercial nuclear fuel manufacturing site and made Magnox fuel for first generation reactors in the UK, Japan and Italy. Over the next 70 years Springfields went on to manufacture a wider range of nuclear fuel products than any other country. Current activities include manufacture of oxide fuels for advanced gas cooled reactors (AGR) and light water reactors (LWR), manufacture of uranium hexafluoride, and conversion and processing of residues.

Responsibility for the site was passed from the Ministry of Supply to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, then to BNFL and in 2010 to Springfields Fuels Ltd (SFL), which was created to run the site on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

SFL was managed and operated by Westinghouse Electric UK, which subsequently acquired a long-term lease for the site and transferred responsibility for the commercial fuel manufacturing business and Springfields Fuels Ltd to Westinghouse. At its peak Springfields employed 4000 people. Increased automation and a drop in demand means that current numbers are around 800.

All the UK’s Magnox and AGR fuel was manufactured at Springfields. The last of 5.5 million Magnox fuel rods were manufactured on site in 2008 and the final consignment of Magnox fuel left Springfields in December 2011.

As the UK’s advanced gas cooled reactors approach the end of their generating lives, production of this fuel will cease. As the demand for nuclear fuel declines, Springfields is looking for new opportunities and new partnerships.

Since 1996 Springfields has decommissioned more than 120 plant buildings and support facilities. These include 1940s buildings converted for nuclear fuel manufacture, together with some sealed chemical agent manufacture and storage facilities. There is now ample space on the site for new developments — around 60% of the 200-acre site and a brownfield area has been identified as suitable for the proposed CETP.

Springfields forms an important part of the UK’s North West Nuclear Arc (NWNA) stretching from Cumbria to North Wales, which hosts almost half of the UK’s existing nuclear research and development activity. The NWNA describes itself as a living lab for enacting nuclear innovation policy on the ground.

As the UK moves to net zero in the next few decades, Springfields is vying to position itself at the heart of new developments in the 21st century nuclear fuel cycle. If CETP lives up to its promise it will play a significant role.