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Opinion: The age of small modular nuclear?

Opinion: The age of small modular nuclear?

By Jeremy Williams

There was something of a non-sequitur from Britain’s Chancellor Jeremy Hunt recently. “We don’t want to see high bills like this again,” he said of the country’s current energy costs. “It’s time for a clean energy reset. That is why we are fully committing to nuclear power in the UK, backing a new generation of small modular reactors.”

If I was hoping to bring down energy bills, then nuclear isn’t the first place I’d look. The cost of Hinkley Point C, Britain’s first new nuclear power plant in decades, was originally priced at £16 billion. That made it the most expensive building in the world, and that was before costs began to spiral upwards. The latest estimate is that it will cost £32 billion. So it really doesn’t make much sense for Jeremy Hunt to be promising lower bills with nuclear power.

But maybe it’s not about megaprojects like Hinkley. Maybe, as Hunt suggests, the future lies in the much-vaunted Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). A number of agencies are looking for smaller reactors that can be standardised and therefore built quickly and cheaply – cheap being relative in the world of nuclear. It ought to be cheaper to install a chain of SMRs than to build one massive and bespoke power station.

The theory is that if they are small and they are modular, then SMRs would be closer to a manufactured product than a construction project. That would mean economies of scale, and potentially prompt the kind of decline in costs that we’ve seen in solar or in battery technologies.

But SMRs have been discussed for years. How close are we to seeing them as part of a low-carbon electricity grid?

Let’s start with who is working on the idea. A recent overview of the sector from the OECD includes this map of various projects. It’s not exhaustive, but it shows the major players.

Most of the action is in the US, with other projects in China, Britain, France, Russia and a handful of others. Some of these are private enterprises, particularly the American ones. Elsewhere a lot of the work is coming from state-owned nuclear companies such as EDF in France, or Argentina’s CNEA. Anyone who has invested in nuclear power and research in the past is likely to have an SMR project on a drawing board somewhere.

Is anyone actually building them? Sort of, but only China and Russia have working SMRs so far – a demonstration plant in China, and Russia’s pioneering floating nuclear power station, the Akademik Lomonosov. I wouldn’t consider either of those to be good examples of what SMRs are supposed to be, but they’re the ones that get mentioned. Construction on further plants is underway in both countries, along with Argentina. As the OECD notes, “there are currently no SMRs licensed to operate outside of China or Russia.” Everywhere else, SMRs are in various phases of research, design and planning.

This doesn’t tell us much about how long it’s going to take to bring SMRs into the energy mix. That’s because the big obstacle in nuclear power isn’t technology, but regulation. It’s incredibly difficult and slow to bring a new nuclear technology to market, and rightly so, given its dangers. Licensing a new nuclear design in the US takes five years and costs a billion dollars – and that’s before you even apply to build anything. That’s just to confirm that the design is safe.

Things move incredibly slowly in the nuclear world. The concepts for the European Pressurised Reactor that’s being built at Hinkley Point – and which is considered a new design, were being done in the mid-nineties. So of the long list of companies with concepts for SMRs, how many of those will ever get built, and in how many decades? From a climate change perspective, speed matters. We don’t want to accelerate nuclear power at the expense of safety, but at the moment it is going to take too long to bring any of these new reactors online.

Here in the UK, there is one firm that is synonymous with SMRs, and that’s Rolls Royce. Any article on the subject in the UK will mention Rolls Royce and often illustrate the article with a glossy picture of their proposed design – as I’ve done above. What’s odd about this is that Rolls Royce’s design isn’t a small modular reactor. It’s being called that because it’s a buzzword, but it’s 470Mw in capacity. That’s smaller than Hinkley Point C at 3,300Mw, but it’s a whole lot larger than what is generally called an SMR.

Neither does it use modular reactors to achieve its larger power output. What Rolls Royce is doing is using modular construction techniques to build a traditional reactor a bit quicker. On Michael Liebriech’s Cleaning Up podcast, the CEO of Rolls Royce described it as “a Lego kit of parts” for building a nuclear reactor. So it’s not actually an SMR, but why not call it one if you can tap government funding by pretending it is?

Looking at where we are at the moment, I expect there will be a new generation of smaller nuclear power stations at some point in the future. I expect China will do it first, and that the economies of scale will happen there. If it ever reaches the UK, it will be a few years away.

A more urgent question is whether or not a new generation of nuclear power will happen in time to make a difference to climate change. That looks far less certain.

First published in The Earthbound Report.

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