The case for small modular nuclear reactors in the UK

News editor

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.