The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) welcomes cooperating with the Nuclear Consulting Group (NCG) in its development of one of the most detailed analyses of the technologies being developed to create small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) in the UK and around the world. This report concludes there remains fundamental barriers to any significant development of this new nuclear technology, and its prospects for creating some kind of ‘nuclear renaissance’ are unlikely to be realised.
The report has been developed by Professor Stephen Thomas of Greenwich University, Dr Paul Dorfman of University College London and NCG Founder, Professor M V Ramana of British Columbia University, and the NFLA Secretary. (1) The global nuclear industry has put forward SMRs as a panacea to the problems of high cost and the difficulty of financing large nuclear reactors; a ready-made alternative that can fill the gap. However, as the NCG / NFLA report outlines in detail, there are huge obstacles to overcome. Some of these are technical issues, others are around building up an effective supply chain, while the financing of such schemes will only be possible with significant and large subsidy from the public purse.
The report starts with considering the failures in delivering larger nuclear reactors, and then takes in turn each type of SMR technology that has been put forward by companies involved in the nuclear industry.
The report outlines in some detail UK Government policy on SMRs. It notes that after some considerable early promotion of the technology, interest has markedly cooled, despite another fairly limited amount of money being offered to develop the technology, announced earlier this week. (2) The report notes the extraordinary set of conditions set out by Rolls Royce to be met by the UK Government if it is to invest significant amounts of money in its own SMR design, which the authors argue could and should not be committed to at a time when serious doubts remain about the economic viability of the technology.
At a global level, the report concludes that, as with the much-heralded ‘nuclear renaissance’ of recent times, SMRs will not be built in any significant scale. The authors note that the two main rationales for SMRs – promised lower overall project costs and lowering the risk of cost overruns by shifting to an assembly line approach – are more than offset by the loss of scale economies that the nuclear industry has pursued for the past five decades. Indeed, many of the features of the SMRs being developed are the same ones that underpinned the latest, failed generation of large reactors. Reactor cost estimates will remain with a large degree of uncertainty until a comprehensive review by national nuclear regulators is completed, the design features are finalised and demonstration plants are built. Whether the economies claimed from the use of production line techniques can be achieved will only be known if reactors are built in very large numbers, and at significant cost.
Spending so much time and effort pursuing such an uncertain technology, at a time when the ‘climate emergency’ has now reached the political and public lexicon in requiring urgent attention, does not appear to be an effective use of taxpayer resources. Abundant evidence shows that renewable energy supply, storage, distribution and management technologies are being developed ever cheaper and swifter at a time when real urgency is required across society and government to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. SMRs are no answer to creating low-carbon economies by 2030 or close to that date. Governments should consider this report carefully and not be diverted by an unproven technology inherent with many difficult issues still to overcome.
In the overall view of the report authors, the prospects for SMRs in the UK and Worldwide is limited and not worth the huge levels of effort or finance being proposed for them
NFLA Steering Committee Chair Councillor David Blackburn said:
“This excellent independent analysis on the prospects for small modular nuclear reactors needs to be read by the new Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom and senior civil servants in the UK Government who have been providing support to the development of small modular nuclear reactors. It is clear from this joint report between the NCG and the NFLA that this technology is not the panacea to kick start new nuclear reactors, far from it. As Councils around the country declare ‘climate emergencies’ it is clear from this report that scarce available resource should not be spent developing this technology but rather diverted into renewable energy, smart energy, energy efficiency and energy storage projects instead. As large new nuclear like at Moorside and Wylfa has failed to be realised, it is time now to move away from small nuclear reactors as an expensive sideshow to the critical needs of mitigating carbon.”
Report co-author Professor Steve Thomas added:
“Nuclear proponents are saying that SMRs will be the next big thing – but the reality is they are as expensive as large reactors, produce the same waste, carry the same radiation risks, and are a long way from any real deployment.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 00 44 (0)161 234 3244.
Notes for editors:
(1) NCG / NFLA report – Prospects for Small Modular Reactors in the UK and Worldwide, July 2019
(2) Energy Live News, Government mulls investing £18 million to develop UK’s first mini nuclear reactor, 23rd July 2019 https://www.energylivenews.com/2019/07/23/government-mulls-investing-18m-to-develop-uks-first-mini-nuclear-reactor/