The UK & Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) publishes today a new update report on the prospects for the development of small and advanced modular nuclear technology in the UK. It outlines several significant technical and financial challenges for the development of such technology and remains sceptical that they can be easily overcome. (1)
The report has been put together for the NFLA by Professor Emeritus Steve Thomas of Greenwich University following a presentation he provided to a recent meeting of the NFLA Welsh Forum. (2)
Professor Thomas had previously connected with the NFLA on this matter in a joint NCG / NFLA report on the prospects for small modular reactors in the UK and worldwide, published in summer 2019. This new report updates the concerns noted in that report to the present times. (3)
With the significant technical and financial challenges besetting nuclear utilities in developing larger nuclear reactors in the UK – in recent years attempts to develop new nuclear reactors at Sellafield Moorside, Wylfa and Oldbury have all floundered – much effort has taken place from the industry and the currently supportive UK Government to promote small modular reactors (SMRs) as a cheaper and more technically realisable alternative. It is argued such reactors could be pre-built on assembly lines or developed on site reactor by reactor.
Professor Thomas considers these issues in detail, looking particularly at the main options that could be developed in the UK – the Rolls Royce-led consortium 470 MW SMR and the NuScale / Shearwater Energy SMR design which is backed by the large US utility Fluor.
The report concludes with some of the following key points:
- The UK Government has been actively pursuing SMRs since 2015. However, there have been a number of changes of direction, programmes announced but not followed through, and large sums of money announced but with open-ended timescales and few details of how the money will be spent.
- The claims made by Rolls Royce for their SMR technology are extraordinary but very similar to those made for the current generation of reactor designs such as the EPR being built at Hinkley Point. In 2000, it had been claimed the EPR would be built in four years or less and would cost $1000/kW (about £800/kW) of capacity. In fact, all EPR’s that have been built have gone far over budget and all will take much more than 4 years to construct. The latest cost estimate for Hinkley Point C is about £27bn (2020 money) or about £8400/kW. Rolls Royce’s claims must therefore be taken with a very large pinch of salt.
- Rolls Royce is also making extraordinary demands on the UK Government that it must commit to before further significant development work takes place. UK taxpayers would have to provide a large proportion of the cost of design development, navigating the regulators design assessment and assist in the setting up of component production lines. It would also have to guarantee orders for a minimum of 16 reactors, which, even on Rolls Royce’s unrealistic cost estimate, would be a commitment to spend nearly £30bn before it has progressed beyond a conceptual design.
- It is perhaps significant that the amounts of government money committed to the Rolls Royce design is still small, about £18m, and it remains to be seen how long Rolls Royce and its partners will be willing to keep the design programme going without the level of commitment it is asking for. Rolls Royce lost £4bn in 2020 due to other problems within its business, particularly due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
- The NuScale option, whether as a standalone plant or a hybrid with offshore wind, suffers from the fact that while the individual reactors are small, they are designed to be in a cluster of 12, making the site capacity about 1GW. This would effectively make it a large reactor site and, until a project being built in the USA is completed and seen to be operating efficiently and economically, it will remain an unproven and risky investment.
Report author Professor Stephen Thomas comments:
“The UK Government’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ 10-point plan of November 2020 seemed to include a major strengthening of the commitment to Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). However, closer examination shows much of the money is far from committed and the focus is on technologies that have little chance of contributing to meet the UK’s zero-carbon target by 2050. There remains no firm commitment to the Rolls Royce SMR and it must be hoped that the government remain unwilling to gamble the huge sums of public money that Rolls Royce is demanding if it is to progress the design from the early stage it is currently at.”
NFLA Welsh Forum Chair, Councillor Ernie Galsworthy, said:
“I welcome this detailed report on small modular reactors from Professor Thomas. It confirms the significant difficulties of moving forward with this technology, and it is clearly no cheap option for the future. In our view, the size of the development makes it unlikely that the initially proposed site of Trawsfynydd could be considered. Whilst there are suggestions Wylfa could be a location for such a development, this report shows that NuScale / Shearwater or Rolls Royce have many difficult hurdles to overcome in achieving this. With time to tackle the climate emergency so limited, we should rather be developing cheaper and more easily realisable renewable energy alternatives, coupled with a dynamic Council-led energy efficiency programme, energy storage and smart energy solutions. I call on the UK and Welsh Governments to refocus their energy policy on such alternative as we seek to move to a net-zero future as quickly as possible.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 07771 930196.
Notes to Editors:
(1) NFLA New Nuclear Monitor 65 on Small & Advanced Nuclear Reactors, April 2021 is attached with this media release and will be on the NFLA website https://www.nuclearpolicy.info
(2) Professor Thomas’s presentation to the NFLA Welsh Forum, 9th April
(3) NCG / NFLA report on the prospects for SMRs in the UK and worldwide, July 2019