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Big problems in Britain’s techno-optimism about Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

 NO2 Nuclear Power, 9 Nov 17 

The Financial Times reports that the Government is preparing to revive the faltering effort to create a new generation of small-scale nuclear reactors in spite of an official analysis that cast doubt on the economic case for the technology. Talks have intensified in recent weeks between government officials and companies including Rolls-Royce, the UK engineering group, over potential public funding to support development of so-called small modular reactors (SMRs).

Development of SMRs is regarded as crucial to the future of the nuclear industry as it struggles to remain competitive against the rapidly falling cost of renewable wind and solar power. Support for SMRs is expected to be part of a wider commitment to nuclear engineering in a new industrial strategy to be unveiled by the government this month.

However, the enthusiasm has been complicated by a technology assessment, commissioned by the business department and carried out by EY, the accounting firm, which reached a negative verdict on the cost-effectiveness of SMRs. The findings are expected to be published in the coming weeks and will confront the government with awkward questions about why public money should be used to help commercialise the unproven technology.

Competitors are expecting the government’s funding for SMRs to be split into three areas, with the largest portion being committed to technology ready for rapid deployment over the next decade. In the future there may also be funding for more experimental technology, with a third area of potential financial support for suppliers working alongside SMR developers, according to people briefed on the government’s plans. The most intense competition for funding is in the first of these areas, with Rolls-Royce vying with rivals including NuScale and Westinghouse of the US. (1)

At the Tory Party Conference the Policy Exchange organised a fringe meeting entitled “A Nuclear Reactor in Every Town”. According to Matthew Rooney, who is the Policy Exchange’s Energy and Environment Research Fellow, “It is fair to say large nuclear reactors are not doing very well in the nuclear world” as evidenced by Hinkley Point C “It is very difficult in liberalized economies to fund large nuclear reactor projects these days and that is where small modular reactors could come in.” Small modular reactors (SMRs), he said, offer the potential to provide scalable and reliable low carbon power and heat. (2)

It’s easy to see why Rolls Royce and other companies in the nuclear engineering business are pushing the UK government finance the development a new generation of SMRs says Oliver Tickell, writing in the Ecologist. Whether the project succeeds or fails, there are juicy profits to be had for them at taxpayers’ expense. But it is much harder to see why the Government might fall for the industry’s techno-optimism which is pure fantasy for a second time in a little over a decade. (3)

According to a recent report by Rolls-Royce and its partners in the ‘SMR Consortium’ (SMRC), a UK SMR program could create 40,000 skilled jobs, contribute £100 billion ($132 billion) to the economy and open up a potential £400 billion global export market. Nuclear Industries Association chairman Lord (John) Hutton claims in the foreword that a UK SMR programme could “help the UK become a vibrant, world-leading nuclear nation.” He asserts his belief that “it is fundamental for the UK to meet its 2050 decarbonisation targets and will deliver secure, reliable and affordable electricity for generations to come.”

The SMRC report envisages an approximate doubling of the UK’s 9.5GW existing nuclear capacity by 2030, then another doubling by 2050 to around 40GW. That implies that come 2050, SMRs would be delivering some 30GW – the output of 100 300MW units scattered around the UK.

There are just two problems with the rosy scenario, says Tickell. First, the techno-optimism that oozes from every page is a fantasy. The cost of renewables is falling so fast that nuclear power will be utterly irrelevant in meeting decarbonisation targets. There is no £400 billion export market. Who would want SMRs in 2050, when their power will be 50-100 times more expensive than solar?

Secondly, nuclear power stations have got bigger to achieve economies of scale: it’s much cheaper to build a single 1.2GW unit than four 300MW units, or a dozen 100MW units. There is nothing new about SMRs – they have been powering submarines and aircraft carriers ever since the 1950s. If there really are huge cost savings to be achieved from the mass production of SMRs, how come they have not already been achieved?

We now know thanks to Andy Stirling and Philip Johnstone of Sussex University that the government wants to use the civilian nuclear programme to generate expertise, and technology, for military use, especially reactors for Trident nuclear submarines. Lord Hutton gave the game away in his introduction to the SMRC report when he wrote: “A UK SMR programme would support all 10 ‘pillars’ of the Government’s Industrial Strategy and assist in sustaining the skills required for the Royal Navy’s submarine programme.”

Senior civil servants revealed that the government’s decision to build a new generation of civil nuclear power stations starting with Hinkley Point is linked to maintaining enough skills to keep Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The disclosure came at a hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee looking at the huge cost of building Hinkley Point power station which critics see as uneconomic and not properly costed.

Stephen Lovegrove told the committee “I was in regular discussion with Jon Thompson, former Permanent Secretary at the MOD, to say that as a nation we are going into a fairly intense period of nuclear activity … We are building the new SSBNs (nuclear armed nuclear submarines) and completing the Astutes … We are completing the build of the nuclear submarines which carry conventional weaponry. We have at some point to renew the warheads, so there is very definitely an opportunity here for the nation to grasp in terms of building up its nuclear skills.” (4)

With regard to Hinkley, Stirling and Johnstone say there is a “remarkable persistence and intensity of UK Government attachments to what is increasingly recognised as an economically untenable project.” The persistence of this nuclear attachment looks to be at least partly due to a perceived need to subsidise the costs of operating and renewing the UK nuclear-propelled submarine fleet. (5)

The governments new Clean Growth Strategy includes, amongst other things, £20m R&D/innovation funding for low carbon heat and energy efficiency, but that is dwarfed by the £480m proposed for nuclear R&D including R&D on SMRs. In terms of low carbon research priorities there are arguably more urgent options to explore such as Power to Gas (P2G) especially. (see Balancing Green Energy, nuclear News No.100 The Government’s funding priorities need to be debated further. (6)

November 11, 2017 - Posted by | technology, UK

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