On the 21st April this year the National Grid announced that for the first time ever no coal had been burnt to produce electricity for an entire 24 hour period in the UK. However, as renewable energy and large nuclear power stations make up more of the UK’s energy needs, the UK government and scientists are exploring a new avenue to produce electricity, the small "modular" nuclear reactor, or SMRs.
SMRs are not new, mini reactors have been used in both submarines and warships for many years (USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine was commissioned in 1954, had an SMR, and no Captain Nemo was not in charge!) and Rolls Royce have been supplying the Royal Navy with SMRs for decades. However, there are now plans to explore using SMRs in the UK’s energy ‘hotspots’ that can tap into the existing National Grid.
SMRs are defined as being able to produce 300 megawatts of electric (MWe), around 10% of that produced by a large conventional nuclear power station and Rolls Royce believes it can produce SMRs at a cost of GBP1.25bn, less than 7% of what Hinkley Point C in Somerset cost. The big advantage of SMRs is their size and the fact they can be entirely factory produced, this means they can be made and placed in a small compact area, and once installed require minimal manual labour. Also, compared to large nuclear power station they only use a small amount of nuclear material, they can therefore be swapped out for newer models once they come to the end of their service life; with only a small amount of radioactive waste. This all looks especially attractive when some industry experts believe the total cost of Hinkley Point C could come in at above GBP80bn once financing costs are included.
What UK PLC is hoping is that it can become a world leader in SMRs, however, this is not a one horse race. There are currently 9 countries involved in developing SMRs (even Argentina is working on one) and there are major concerns over standards. As the World Nuclear Association stated: ‘Design certification, construction and operation licence costs are not necessarily less than for large reactors, placing a major burden on developers and proponents’.
However, industry, entrepreneurs, academics and investors seem unfazed. As well as numerous smaller projects, heavy weights like Rolls Royce are forming consortiums, believing as they say on their website: ‘UK industry has once in a lifetime opportunity to provide secure, reliable and affordable power for decades to come’. They go on to add that a study entitled ‘UK SMR: A National Endeavour’ urges Ministers to support the development of British-manufactured power plants, which could create 40,000 skilled jobs, contribute £100bn to the economy and open up a potential £400bn global export market.