Andrew Ward and Peggy Hollinger (Financial Times) report that the government is preparing to build a number of small ‘new-style’ nuclear reactors – in spite of doubts about the economic viability of this technology. Greg Clark, business secretary, sees this as a more affordable alternative to large-scale nuclear reactors such as the £20bn Hinkley Point C plant.
Though the nuclear industry is now not competitive with the renewable wind and solar power, where costs are falling rapidly (below) British ministers are said to be preparing to revive the UK’s ‘faltering effort’ to create a new generation of small-scale nuclear power plants (small modular reactors – SMRs).
However, a technology assessment carried out by Ernst and Young ‘reached a negative verdict’ on the cost-effectiveness of SMRs:
“SMRs still require additional research and development to make them an economically viable alternative — with the caveat that further R&D creates a complex case to argue, in that it can be seen as both a help and a hindrance to making more economic sense. Indeed, as SMRs are unproven the same steep learning curve is required, combined with the regulatory requirements of each design change and complex mapping of the impacts and cost estimating for contractors if the client does not have an integrated cost model and design (BIM) for civil engineers.”
During the last two months The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are said to have held a series of meetings with SMR developers, including Rolls-Royce which is, according to The Engineer, “one of the only companies in the world to both build and operate nuclear reactors”. (RR image below).
The findings are expected to be published in the coming weeks and will confront the government with awkward questions about why public money should be used to help to commercialise the unproven technology.
Advocates for SMRs say:
- the technology can help the UK to bolster energy security
- and to tackle climate change.
- It will use Britain’s huge stockpile of weapon-grade plutonium, spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste as fuel.
- The cost-overruns and construction delays that have plagued conventional nuclear projects will be overcome.
- A multibillion pound export market will be created for British engineering companies.
Rolls-Royce has portrayed its project as a “national endeavour,” involving UK supply chain partners such as Laing O’Rourke and Arup, in keeping with the government’s industrial strategy to bolster domestic manufacturing and engineering. Rolls-Royce claims that its SMR consortium would create some 40,000 jobs at the peak of any build programme between 2030 and 2050. Its main competitior, NuScale also says that more than 85% of work on its SMR programme would be carried out by UK companies and that its first reactor could be operational by the late 2020s.
Nuclear Engineering International reports that advanced SMRs are currently being built in Russia, China and Argentina, and more than 45 SMR designs are at various stages of development.
As yet, therefore, this is a costly and unproven technology.