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The case for small modular nuclear reactors in the UK

The Engineer’s May 21 Agenda piece took a remarkably gung-ho, pro-nuclear stance and there were very good reasons for this.

I’d just attended the Westminster Energy Environment & Transport Forum’s conference on Britain’s nuclear future and left Glaziers Hall with a head full of memories that took me back to 1988 and the north east coast of Suffolk where work had begun on Sizewell B, the last nuclear power plant to be built in the UK. Further down the coast in Kent, tunnelling work began on the Channel Tunnel link between Britain and France.

These two massive and complex engineering projects saw peak employment levels reach 5,000 at Sizewell and 15,000 on the tunnel link and it was that which guided the tone of said Agenda item.

From a personal perspective, Sizewell B provided a first hand insight into the massive benefits that a project like that can bring to an area of the country that had little to sustain it beforehand.

The net benefits – locally and nationally - cannot be overstated when considering the front-end design, construction, installation of equipment, commissioning, and operation of a plant that size.

But nuclear power stations are about far more than providing lifelong skills and a healthy pay packet, although these are not to be dismissed as trivial.

They have to compete, and looking forward Britain’s new nuclear fleet will operate in a market open to far more sources of renewable energy, and one that some believe will be saturated with abundant and inexpensive shale gas.

Another overlooked feature of the May 21 article was the issue of waste and whether indeed, 50 years from now, the nation and other regions of the world will have an appetite for nuclear energy at all.

The most important element that went unobserved was reactor design itself, and a question from a conference delegate asked whether small modular reactors (rated at less than 300MW) might be a better alternative to EDF’s two European Pressurised Reactors at Hinkley Point C (2 x 1,600 MWe) or Hitachi-owned Horizon Energy’s proposed Advanced Boiling Water Reactors at Oldbury and Wylfa (with a combined rating of 1300MWe).

This issue has been raised today by Civitas, which says Britain’s nuclear industry ‘faces an uncertain future as foreign companies position themselves to rebuild the UK’s nuclear capacity.’

They argue that UK nuclear industry is now entirely vulnerable to the political agendas of other countries, and that the already established supply chains of EDF, Hitachi and Toshiba (which plans to build three Westinghouse AP1000 reactors by 2024) threaten to undermine the UK’s nuclear expertise, which is estimated to be worth £4bn a year.

Report author Candida Whitmill argues that a programme of government support for smaller reactors - which are quicker to build and could be manufactured largely in the UK - could provide an attractive alternative to the high-risk and ‘eye-wateringly expensive’ projects currently planned.

In ‘Use It or Lose It: A business case for an alternative way to rejuvenate the UK nuclear industry’ Whitmill says: ‘Outsourcing nuclear power projects that the UK will be committed to for the next 60 years must be handled carefully if our indigenous industry is not to be diminished.

‘International investment is welcome, if in collaboration with UK businesses. The government has two options; let the UK become merely a host nation whence other nations can springboard their global nuclear ambitions and lose our own nuclear capability; or choose to let the start of a new-build programme of nuclear power reignite the UK’s nuclear supply chain, expand our fuel cycle facilities and showcase our world-class research and development capability.

‘Supporting a programme to bring smaller, affordable, secure, small modular reactors to UK-based commercialisation could do just that.’

She notes also that the UK is well equipped to supply the necessary forgings for SMRs and already has the capacity to supply more than 70 per cent of other nuclear components.

What advantages do SMRs present, given the amount of time and effort developing the new fleet of larger reactors?

Conference speaker Dr Eugene Shwageraus, from Cambridge University’s department of engineering said: ‘Small reactors have great potential. I buy the arguments that small reactors could be better. I buy the argument of better safety, this basically boils down to the amount of water that you have with relation to surface area that you need to cool. For a small reactor this can be orders of magnitude larger than for a big reactor.

‘You can manufacture them in factories and have better quality controls and essentially economy of mass production working against your economy of scale. You can bring them online to match needed capacity better, so you don’t have overcapacity.’

Civitas add that SMRs can be built in three years, and thatthey mostly use fuel with less than five per cent enrichment, satisfying concerns about proliferation.

Whitmill is managing director of Penultimate Power UK, a UK-led consortium to aiming to build SMRs in the UK for the domestic market and export. Civitas notes that SMR development is already underway in the USA with the US Department of Energy offering $452m in match funding to incentivise SMR developments.

The idea of SMRs looks credible and even desirable, but the last word goes to Dr Shwageraus who cautions: ‘If you stack up the advantages it (SMRs) does make sense, the piece that is missing is the first mover. To realise the economy of mass production, those vendors who develop small modular reactors will need a line of customers.’

Any takers? Let us know your thoughts below.

Readers' comments (29)

  • With the advent of Thorium fuelled reactors, conventional reactors don't make any sense.

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  • Except nobody's ever built one, and nobody is showing any signs of building one.

  • We must do it. Can we do both ? Why should we not rebuild our ability to build large nuclear power stations both for domestic use and export ? Our Universities are surely capable of training the Engineers and Scientists needed and the much vaunted City of London has the world's financial resources to back our own technology.

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  • We already make nuclear reactors to power our submarines so why don't we build more, making the unit cost lower due to economies of scale, and distribute them around the country. This also has a strategic benefit, they can be protected easier and if one fails then there are more to cover the generating loss.
    We can then invest the money saved in developing a reactor to use the waste generated, so solving another problem.

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  • If SMR and thorium technologies could be combined, that would seem to be a way forward to long-term dependable energy supplies. The public will need to be brought along with a detailed education programme about the advantages and safety.

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  • Yes, but see below.

  • This makes perfect sense and my friends in the industry have always said so. This could be done almost entirely within the UK, and create an export market. The expertise is there and the investment required is far more realistic than having to guarantee over the top strike prices to foreign power companies.

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  • At last some sense about nuclear energy. The possibilities of small scale reactors have been written off many times before, but should be considered as a possibility of reducing our spiralling energy costs and developing a saleable British technology.

    We seem to have sold-out the large scale nuclear to France and Japan, but have may a lead through the well developed small scale reactors.

    It is not difficult to compete with off-shore wind, especially when the back-up costs are allowed for.

    How do engineers get anything through the politically motivated "peer-review system" backed global-warming lobby that is presently constipating all energy developments

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  • Interesting I was convinced by sense of smaller modular technologies in the early noughties, for their combination of intrinsic safety, and avoidance of the mega-project political time-scales, more distributed eggs in more baskets, market flexibility, geographical flexibility, you name it, etc.

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  • If the fuel is coming from Mali, then you'd need to add the cost of the peace keeping force. Or should the taxpayer foot that bill?

    Why not instead invest more in energy efficiency?

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  • Very interesting article, thank you. As a firm believer that the only practical alternative method to fossil fuel generation for supplying the burgeoning future power demands is nuclear I found this very encouraging. The proposal for smaller, locally produced power generation plant unaffected by foreign political decisions is one of the most sensible suggestions I've heard for a long time. Back in the 60's we generated 25% of our capacity with nuclear and as school children we were told that this was the power of the future and that, at that time, the UK was the largest nuclear generator, per capita, in Europe. Now we seem to buy most of our oil,coal and gas from overseas with little or no energy security for the future. Short term this is not a problem if it's a stopgap, but a long term policy is required which can be brought on stream relatively quickly to reduce our exposure to foreign politics and to stabilize the home energy price. This looks like a very promising place to start.

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  • Candida Whitmill is describing the model that has been used in France for many years, put the power where it is required, and reduce the transmission costs. There is nothing new in this idea, the French have based their countries power supply on this system. The units were originally UK design 40 years ago, but now they are built by Rolls-Royce Civil Nuclear SAS.
    Although very few people would wish to have a nuclear powerstation on their doorstep the providers have missed the opportunity to replace all the old coal fired stations with small nuclear units. All the infrastructure was in place and the transmission lines were short. They seem to be just happy to demolish and sell off the sites to show off their green credentials and ability to balance the books.

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