Select Committee urges clarity from government on SMRs

The UK government’s SMR strategy is ‘lacking clarity’ and hampering the sector, according to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in Westminster.

Rolls-Royce SMR
Rolls-Royce SMR - Rolls-Royce

In a letter to the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero from the EAC’s chair, several concerns were raised around current SMR policy. It was noted that a final investment decision on the first SMR is not expected until 2029, with first generation capacity unlikely before 2035 – the date the UK has set for decarbonisation of its electricity grid.

The EAC also pointed to the government’s recently published Civil Nuclear Roadmap, which outlined a pathway to 24GW of nuclear energy by 2050. However, the Roadmap also included a scenario whereby nuclear capacity in 2050 is as low as 12GW. Large-scale nuclear projects, including Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, will likely account for the majority of that 12GW, leaving the SMR sector on an unsure footing over its future.

“As a result of the UK’s push towards nuclear SMR technology, the UK has the opportunity to be a genuine world leader in the manufacture of SMR nuclear capability with great export potential,” said Environmental Audit Committee chair, Philip Dunne MP.

“However, despite pledging hundreds of millions of pounds in support for SMR projects and undertaking to invest in the construction of the UK’s first SMR, the government’s overall vision for the sector at this stage lacks clarity: Ministers might commission as much as 24GW in nuclear capacity by 2050, but could commission as little as 12GW. The first SMR is unlikely to be in operation by 2035, the date Ministers have set for decarbonising the electricity supply: so what role will SMRs have in an energy mix dominated by renewables and supplemented by existing and emerging large-scale nuclear?”

Another concern flagged by the select committee was the potential for Great British Nuclear’s SMR competition to result in a greater amount of waste for storage and reprocessing. With the UK already home to the world’s largest nuclear waste site at Sellafield - a facility under the microscope in recent months - and no clear pathway to a geological disposal site, proliferation of waste is a major concern for UK’s nuclear sector.

Evidence before the EAC indicated that government clarity on investment decisions and the commissioning of a steady stream of SMR projects had the potential to lower the overall costs of SMR projects as production efficiencies were realised. However, as no commercial orders for SMR installations have yet been placed worldwide, the case for these benefits is not yet proven. According to the EAC, this is yet another factor adding to uncertainty across the UK’s nascent SMR sector.

“This uncertainty risks knock-on effects for industry confidence: not only for investment decisions relating to the initial build and the construction of factories to build reactor modules, but also for the support and growth of supply chains and skills,” Dunne continued.

“We simply don’t yet know how much SMRs will contribute to electricity generation in the country, nor how much the roll-out is likely to cost the taxpayer.”