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Nuclear industry is giving high-risk small modular reactors the hard sell

Nuclear industry is giving high-risk small modular reactors the hard sell, Gordon Murray, 8 Apr 22,
ABBI Garton-Crosbie’s article (Scottish Government not consulted on Boris Johnson’s energy plan, Apr 7) highlights the differences in energy policy between Westminster and Holyrood and in particular the proposed adoption of small modular reactors (SMRs).

Together with match-funding, more than £450 million has been earmarked for new nuclear also includes SMRs. The UK Government also wants to build more large nuclear plants such as Sizewell C, and to this end it announced funding of £1.7 billion in the October budget of 2021.

The SMR programme promises lower energy production costs but there is no hard evidence to support this claim, as the economics of such light-water reactors (by definition less than 300MW) have not been proven. We are told incessantly that each SMR is more affordable than their larger brothers of GW scale. At less than one tenth of the output of Hinkley Point C, who could have supposed otherwise!

The nuclear industry has a long track record of extravagant claims in this regard, reflected in long delays, enormous budget overruns and ultimately, the all-important strike price (the guaranteed price received by the generator).

The UK SMR reactor is first-of-a-kind, ergo, small size does not equate to small strike price.

The National Nuclear Laboratory has speculated an SMR strike price that might exceed £80/MWh. This value mirrors cost modelling that shows SMRs are not significantly cheaper in terms of capital cost per power output generated than current gigawatt-scale reactors. To put this into perspective, this is twice the price of electricity generated by offshore wind and around three times that of onshore wind and solar. As with Hinkley, nuclear subsidies will be necessary to sustain this price in addition to the subsidies that will be necessary due to the price caps on decommissioning and management of nuclear waste costs.

The government hopes that the smaller capital costs of an SMR compared to GW scale reactors will attract more investors and obviate the need for public subsidies in the form of the regulated asset base (RAB) model of funding for Sizewell C. There is, however, no guarantee of success. The smart money is with renewables, where the returns are higher with smaller risks. Still, it very possible that RAB or a variant thereof – son of RAB – could be used to subsidise, if not fully, the construction costs, overruns and cancellations. We, the taxpayer, bear the risks.

Economies of scale are of paramount importance in making the economic case for SMRs. This means large numbers of these power plants spread all over the country, resulting in heightened safety concerns over the increased proliferation of nuclear materials and terrorist attack that can involve drones.

It is also being proposed that SMRs be used to decarbonise domestic and industrial heating systems. This means locating them close to population centres. Expect local bribes, er, incentives.

Claims that we will be cuddling up to our local SMR before this decade is out are also misplaced. The regulatory process has hardly begun: site licensing, generic design assessment, supply chain engagement, front-end engineering development, manufacture, installation and commissioning. The window of time to mitigate catastrophic climate change is now very small.

Diverting hundreds of millions of pounds in SMR development costs away from tried and tested low-carbon generators that can be brought on-line in a fraction of the time and at much lower cost to the consumer is not the correct course of action.

The problem with long-term waste disposal will also be exacerbated. At present it is stored at nuclear power stations and at Sellafield, whose management costs at present are £2bn annually and increasing.

Beware. The hard sell is under way. Tin hats on, dear citizens.

April 9, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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