A common denominator among UK nuclear projects at Hinkley Point, Wylfa, Sizewell and Moorside has been the difficulties in developing, establishing and integrating infrastructure for modern nuclear reactors, says Simon Sjenitzer.
Possibly spurred on by these challenges, the UK Government recently announced another phase of funding for research and development in to Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), providing a welcome move for the nuclear industry.
The World Nuclear Association 2015 report on SMRs states that their enormous potential rests on several factors.
Their small size and modularity could allow for manufacturing to take place in a factory setting, installed module by module, improving quality, efficiency and potentially reducing costs.
Also, their size and passive safety features also make them favourable to countries with smaller grid capacity and less nuclear power experience, and can lead to easier financing compared to larger plants.
[SMRs] could allow manufacturing to take place in a factory setting, installed module by module, improving quality, efficiency and potentially reducing costs.
In the UK, a Techno Economic Assessment of SMRs published in 2016 found that SMRs could potentially be over 60% cheaper to build and faster to deploy (by approximately three years) than larger reactors.
Is there a market?
In 2014, the UK Government published a report produced by a consortium led by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) on SMR concepts, feasibility and potential. In 2015, the Government said that it would invest £250 million over five years in nuclear R&D including SMRs. This was followed by a competition to identify the best value SMR for the UK.
However, when the competition closed in December 2017 with 33 eligible companies shortlisted, there wasn’t a clear indication of future government support.
This may have been due to the fact that as the NNL feasibility report suggested, the UK market could be around 7GWe – fine for investment, but not sustainable unless we look to world markets. With independent reports suggesting there is only room for one design in the UK to ensure commercial viability, it is not surprising the Government are justifiably cautious about choosing which is most suitable.
If Government commits funds into market-generating initiatives, it is crucial that the right one creates UK jobs
Additional challenges to a widespread uptake of SMRs are proliferation issues depending on chosen design (some require higher enriched fuel) and where these units could be sited. There has been a call to the Government for an independent review of the current Generic Design Assessment process – which could help remove unnecessary costs and delays in order to make it easier to approve and deploy SMRs.
What does the future hold?
A major step forward came in December 2017, when the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced that it is to invest up to £44 million to establish a nuclear advanced modular reactor feasibility and development initiative.
The initiative aims to maximise the amount of off-site factory fabrication, generating low cost electricity, increased flexibility in delivering electricity to the grid, increased functionality and alternative applications that may generate additional revenue or economic growth.
In Phase One, up to £4 million could be available for a series of feasibility studies on advanced modular reactor designs, with contracts for technical feasibility studies worth up to £300,000. Funding for Phase Two could provide up to £40 million for selected projects from Phase One.
SMRs can sit beside their larger brothers in their ability to provide the UK with low carbon heat and power. Additionally, they could provide standby power generation and power for discrete high energy industrial processes, particularly in remote areas around the world. There could also be technology export opportunities, but if the Government commits public funds into market generating initiatives, it is crucial that we back the right one, and that the right one creates UK jobs,
Simon Sjenitzer is director - energy & climate change business development at WYG