Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Aberdeen North at the 2015 general election and Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.
Rolls-Royce recently unveiled Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as their vision for delivering large quantities of affordable, low-carbon power. Instead of committing to bespoke, mega-projects (e.g. another Hinkley Point C), the government might instead order (say) eight identical 440 MW SMRs. Rolls-Royce would construct these on their factory production line, deliver them by truck, install them – and maybe even operate them over their lifetime. And by taking an early technology lead, there could be multi-billion pound global opportunities (or Brexports as Rolls calls them) supporting thousands of British R&D and manufacturing jobs.
In theory, you could install an SMR in every town to supply local needs. (Perhaps MPs would welcome one per constituency.) But, as the proliferation of nuclear sites carries major security and safety implications, the obvious solution is to install multiple units at an existing nuclear location. SMR proposals for Trawsfynydd, the former Magnox site in Snowdonia, have already attracted cross-party support.
So, if they reduce costs, cut CO2 emissions, address key security concerns and generate global opportunities, what’s not to like?
Are SMRs a better bet than large-scale nuclear?
First things first: this would be a somewhat different discussion if we didn’t know how to build large-scale nuclear reactors. We clearly do – but it’s the size (and uncertainty) of their costs and schedule that are currently proving a deterrent.
What doesn’t help are new, un-proven designs: Hinkley Point C didn’t look cheap or quick in the first place and its subsequent over-runs have dented confidence (both in industry and in government) in committing to further projects. Now, I do recognise that my personal solution might not be permissible: ‘borrow’ the plans for Sizewell B, photocopy them, then roll-out half a dozen identikits across the UK. But there is a (hopefully sensible) basic principle here i.e. take a proven design and keep deploying it consistently. Almost a Large Modular Reactor concept, if you like.
So, whilst a more practical large-scale approach might not go amiss, that in itself needn’t dismiss SMRs. Even competitive large-scale designs can be challenging for governments to finance – or too large for some countries’ needs. SMRs allow for ‘bite-sized’ investment with units progressively added in response to rising demand such as when electric car usage ramps up. It needn’t be an ‘either-or’ discussion when it comes to large-scale nuclear versus SMR.
Why not just back renewables instead?
Again, it needn’t be an ‘either-or’. Citing the Energy Technologies Institute projections for the UK to achieve net-zero by 2050, Rolls-Royce contend that neither big nuclear (stalled post-Hinkley) nor renewables (growing rapidly but still not fast enough) can fully cover it: if that is correct, that suggests a gap in the UK market for SMRs. And, of course, there are many other countries seeking zero-carbon energy solutions.
There are important lessons from the renewables sector, however. The UK is world number one in installed offshore wind capacity with turbine sizes increasing and unit costs falling. But, whilst the UK has made itself an attractive location for renewables investment, most key equipment suppliers and power generation companies are not British. So, if the SMR concept is indeed a go-er, it will be important to support home-grown development.
And whilst windfarms are notorious for their fluctuating output, nuclear has the opposite challenge. Reactors like to operate under rock-steady conditions making output difficult to adjust in response to grid demand. As I discussed previously, using electricity (be that renewable or nuclear) to produce storeable hydrogen is a potential solution for our power, heating and transportation requirements. Again, this is an early stage technology opportunity for the UK.
The global market: opportunities and security
Once upon a time, the UK was a global leader in nuclear, both at home and abroad. Things have changed somewhat: today, we don’t have a home-grown large-scale nuclear design to call our own. But we are in a strong position to take a global lead in SMRs. Rolls-Royce estimate the global market to be worth up to £400 billion: key export markets might include India, Brazil and Australia.
Compact reactors that are (relatively) cheap, simple to build and easy to deliver sound great from a government perspective. But, as the public has been quick to observe, what could possibly go wrong with exporting a nuclear device you can put on a truck? Safety and security concerns are highly relevant but aren’t necessarily reasons not to continue. Even if we walk away, SMRs don’t disappear as a concept: France, Russia and China are active in this field and will be keen to leverage the economic (and political) benefits of nuclear exports. Instead, it calls for responsibility in whom we sell these to, where they get installed, how they are operated and even decommissioned. These are lifetime commitments – not one-off sales.
So, should we back SMRs?
The first of a kind (FOAK) of anything is expensive. But the nth of a kind (NOAK) can be much cheaper once design and manufacturing issues are ironed out. (Note the can, not a definite will, by the way). Rolls-Royce aspire to driving down levelised generating costs from £75/MWh (FOAK) to £60/MWh (NOAK) which would be competitive versus gas-fired power stations and windfarms. But, we clearly have to build several to get to ‘n’. So, if we are going to back SMRs, we need to commit for a duration. No getting cold feet if the first one over-runs.
The key thing I remember from my school geography class was that there is never a single, perfect solution to the world’s energy problems. SMRs are still at a relatively early stage (technically or commercially) but the Rolls-Royce concept has the potential to plug a gap in the UK’s low-carbon power requirements and to take a global lead in valuable export opportunities. If we believe in SMRs, let’s think how we can support British businesses in realising them.