Industry looks to the UK to develop factory-built reactors ready to provide affordable, low-carbon energy wherever it is needed – but issues around security and waste disposal remain
Mini nuclear power plants could be trucked into a town near you to provide your hot water, or shipped to any country that wants to plug them into their electricity grid from the dock. That is the aim of those developing “small modular reactors” and, from the US to China to Poland, they want the UK to be at the centre of the nascent industry. The UK government says it is “fully enthused” about the technology.
With UN climate change summit in Paris imminent, the question of how to keep the lights on affordably, while cutting emissions, is pressing.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) aim to capture the advantages of nuclear power – always-on, low-carbon energy – while avoiding the problems, principally the vast cost and time taken to build huge plants. Current plants, such as the planned French-Chinese Hinkley Point project in Somerset, have to be built on-site, a task likened to “building a cathedral within a cathedral”.
Instead, SMRs, would be turned out by the dozen in a factory, then transported to sites and plugged in, making them – in theory – cheaper. Companies around the world, including in Russia, South Korea and Argentina, are now trying to turn that theory into practice and many are looking at the nuclear-friendly UK as the place to make it happen.
A government-funded report from the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in December 2014 suggested there was potentially a “very significant” global market for hundreds of SMRs (65-85 gigawatts) by 2035, with dozens of the SMRs (7GW) sited in the UK. This market would be worth £250-£400bn, the NNL estimated, saying it represented an economic opportunity for UK plc.
SMRs are reactors that produce less than 300MW (0.3GW) of electricity, much smaller than the 1,000MW (1GW) of many existing nuclear plants. An additional advantage is that SMRs can vary their output quickly, meaning they could be used to balance intermittent wind and solar energy, unlike big nuclear plants.
Westinghouse, part of Toshiba and one of the world’s biggest nuclear companies, is staying on land with its 225MW (electricity) SMR, which it says could be deployed by 2027. “There’s a unique opportunity for the UK to move from being a buyer to a provider, said Jeff Benjamin, head of new build and major programmes. “We hope the build out of our SMR will happen here in the UK … but then use this as a base to export globally.”
But for all the activity, the nascent SMR industry faces familiar nuclear challenges: cost, public acceptability, security and waste disposal. The nuclear industry has a long record of broken promises over cost – Hinkley-type reactors being built by EDF in France and Finland are billions over budget and years behind schedule.
Waddington said the next two to three years are critical if SMRs are to be deployed widely in the next decade, and the UK has a once-in-a-generation chance to be at the heart of it: “The window of opportunity for the UK is there – but it will not be open forever.”
Read more at Are mini-nuclear reactors the answer to the climate change crisis?