UK set to continue old style nuclear as local group preps SMR

There are continuing, disturbing reports in the UK press that politicians have somehow become rapt with ideas of getting the public to accept the risk of building out nuclear to resolve climate change. Instead of asking countries like Japan and France, who have largely sworn off a nuclear future, the incoming government seems hell bent on paying the extraordinary high price of nuclear, instead of focusing on renewables and improvements to the grid.

The Times carries a piece this week on it, as does the Guardian, all responding to a leaked document by “government sources, which recites the formula so often rolled out in the past – 30% wind, 30%  nuclear, and 30% fossil fuels with carbon capture, when nuclear is uneconomic, and carbon capture has been shown both not to work, and to be too expensive.

Why is it that China and India can see clearly that solar and wind are plenty to solve the problems, combined with battery advances in price and scale, and yet European governments remain confused? Could it be the constant lobbying from a nuclear industry. EDF, which is a French business, can see that there are fewer contracts to be had in its native France, so it is trying to get the British consumer to “pay” for the process, and take on the risk, charging each of the 26 million homes a little extra each month for about ten years, which is how long it will take to build even one of the existing designs for nuclear. The UK government says 20 are planned so the average energy bill could rise considerably.

But if this solved the UK route to zero emissions, at the expense of traditional nuclear businesses like EDF, China National Nuclear,  Westinghouse, GE, Hitachi, Babcock & Wilcox, then so be it.

But what this will do is tie the UK to extortionate energy pricing now for ten years, and then going forward, for another 30 years, and create the problem of what to do with exhausted radioactive cores. Meanwhile France will have, by then, weaned itself off nuclear or half off it, and Germany and the Nordics will be almost entirely renewable and in the process enjoy the cheapest electricity in Europe, while the UK sticks with the most expensive.

And what will regulator Ofgem have to say about it. It has already resisted this week, very publicly, the idea that it should have zero emissions added to its current mission statement, saying that it will do its best, but it cannot have two masters, and that its primary objective is to protect consumers by providing them with choice. Perhaps the new Boris Johnson government will feel obliged to help out the nuclear industry at the expense of that core Ofgem mission, and insist instead that it must change roles, and chase nuclear. It’s the equivalent of buying a dog and barking yourself. The Government needs to listen to Ofgem, not tell it what to think. Suffice it to say not one of the national newspapers agreed it was a good idea, and are all firmly backing renewables.

But there is another way if government is hell bent on the nuclear option and this leak coincides with a minor £18 million investment at Roll Royce to bring a small modular reactor to market.

There are many issues around small modular reactors (SMR), but the key to them is that they should operate eventually at around £60 per MWh over a 30 years plus lifetime – not quite so cheap as renewables, but a lot cheaper than the £90 and rising formula that was used for Hinkley Point, the last nuclear reactor to be commissioned in the UK, and low enough in price to attract investment for a fixed baseload. Extra money spent bringing these to market is money saved when it comes to grid modernization, at least grid modernization can be slowed down and rolled out more thoughtfully.

And Rolls-Royce, for so many years associated with the car industry which has more or less passed the UK by, is reliant on aircraft orders in agency with trans-European partners – it will be hit for six by an unorderly Brexit and the company needs to enter new businesses urgently. Taking a home grown design for an SMR, and accelerating its acceptance rate could be a viable plan for many countries as long as it is pursued alongside an open market for existing renewables options.

But that’s not what’s happening here. The UK government is being panicked into recommending to Ministers, many of whom do not have the training to understand science based decisions, an investment in technology that has its roots back in the 1950s and a cost base that goes with it.

Even this paltry £18 million of initial funds, part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, is to final confirmation in early autumn – once the new Prime Minister arrives has time to look at the issue.

There are many differences between SMRs and older nuclear plants – some have the ability to produce more or less electricity with the seasons, rather than mostly stick to “safe” parallel lines of output all year round; they have the economies of scale whereby you build one factory and make them in modular kit-form, to be transported and erected at multiple sites around the country, where the energy can be used locally, and not put undue strain on the transmission network, that large centrally located plants do.

Some of them either have fuel systems which will last a lifetime, and no facility, once built for anyone to handle radioactive material – they employ less people, have automated failsafes (when they fail, they fall into safe modes), decreased risk of nuclear material proliferation (since no-one can get the material without taking the power station offline), and some use the “breeder” principle, of the cores being surrounded by no-radioactive isotopes of the same or similar materials, which slowly become active due to the exposure to radiation. They make their own fuel and then deplete it slowly over a lifetime.

The Rolls-Royce design uses a pressurized water reactor design in a close-coupled four-loop configuration is supported currently by a team of 150 engineers who have been working on it for around four years and it outputs around 450 MW of energy.

Rolls-Royce believes its 440 MW design can be built on a first of a kind basis of £70 pounds per MWh and fall to around 60 pounds per MWh from the fifth unit onwards. They could be ready to go to market by 2028 and take 5 years to install each one instead of 10 to 12. Given that work on many older style nuclear reactors around Europe have gone into cost over-runs, and are currently stalled, why would you not put down a program around a native supplier, starting in 2028, and only deal with SMR designs and not even engage with the likes of EDF on the “old style” nuclear.

It may cost a lot, but it would provide about 40,000 jobs inside the country.

There have already been expressions of interest from other countries, reinforcing the consortium’s confidence in the potential scale of the export opportunity, which could be in excess of £250 billion.

The consortium members include Rolls-Royce, Assystem, SNC Lavalin/Atkins, Wood, Arup, Laing O’Rourke, BAM Nuttall, Siemens, National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) and Nuclear AMRC.