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UK announces support for small nuclear reactor programme

27 November 2015

UK chancellor George Osborne said on November 25 that at least £250m will be spent by 2020 on an ambitious programme to position the UK as a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies. The major part would be spent on identifying the best design of small modular reactors (SMRs) with a view to developing a commercial SMR manufacturing industry in the UK in the 2020s.

NuScale SMR prototype - Image: NuScale
NuScale SMR prototype - Image: NuScale

SMRs combine the main advantages of nuclear power – always online and low-carbon – while avoiding some of the problems, principally the vast cost and time taken to build huge plants such as the planned £16bn French-Chinese Hinkley Point C project in Somerset.

SMRs would each produce less than 300MW of electricity, compared with a planned output of 3,200MW at Hinkley Point C. An additional advantage is that SMRs can vary their output quickly, meaning they could be used to balance intermittent wind and solar energy, unlike larger nuclear plants, which take time to reduce or increase output.

The UK has commissioned five studies since July, costing £4.5m, to explore the potential of SMRs and energy secretary Amber Rudd told MPs earlier this month: “We are fully enthused about SMRs. We are doing as much as we can in terms of supporting the technology. SMRs would be an excellent way forward.”

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, with dozens in the UK. This market would be worth £250-£400bn, the NNL estimated, saying it represented an economic opportunity for UK plc.

Small reactors have been operated for more than 50 years, particularly on military submarines and ships, but this application is very different from civil nuclear electricity generation. They would be built on a production line to be transported to sites and plugged in, making them far cheaper than large nuclear power stations. They could be loaded on barges, linked to a grid in port and then floated back to the factory for refuelling.

The US nuclear giant Westinghouse, Fluor subsidiary NuScale, KAERI of South Korea and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) are the main contenders in the race to develop a commercial SMR. Small reactors have operated at a remote site in Siberia since 1976, but no true factory-built SMRs have yet been built.

Tom Mundy, head of programme development at NuScale, said the UK was in pole position to develop this technology. “It’s got a government committed to reducing carbon and seeing nuclear as one of the solutions, and it has got a substantial and pre-eminent legacy of nuclear operations – a trained and capable workforce and a nuclear supply chain.”

NuScale has a 50MW design that would be transportable by road, with several reactors able to be installed side-by-side if more power is needed. The company is backed by a $217m cost-sharing deal from the US Department of Energy (DoE)  and plans to start generating electricity for its first customer in Idaho in 2023.

Westinghouse, part of Toshiba and one of the world’s biggest nuclear companies, is offering a 225MW SMR, which it says could be deployed by 2027. The SMRs would be built in the UK and exported globally, and UK ministers are said to be looking closely at this offer.

Other SMR contenders include US-based Generation mPower, also backed by the US DoE, while more novel technology, such as that from Bill Gates-backed Terrapower, are seen as prospects further in the future. The pilot plant closest to completion is CAREM in Argentina, which was initially intended for use in submarines.

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