Mini Nuclear Reactor Race

Chancellor George Osborne’s plans could put the UK at the heart of the new global mini-nuclear reactor industry, reactors that are trucked into towns to provide hot water, or shipped to foreign countries to be plugged into their electrical grid.

On Wednesday the Chancellor revealed that by 2020 at least £250 million will be spent on an “ambitious” programme to put the UK at the forefront of the industry and make it a “leader in innovative nuclear technologies”.

A competition will be held to see who can design the best value mini reactor – called a small modular reactor (SMR) – and pave the way “towards building on of the world’s first SMRs in the UK in the 2020s”. Companies from far and wide, including ones based in the US, China and Poland, are all sending their proposals.

The question of how to keep electricity flowing while cutting carbon emissions is a pressing one, with the crucial UN climate change summit in Paris on the horizon.

The idea behind SMRs is to take advantage of the good points of nuclear energy – always-on, low-carbon – while avoiding the issues involved with full-scale plants – the vast cost and the time it takes to build them. Plants like the French-Chinese Hinkley Point project in Somerset have to be built on-site, often on the same location as an older version, a task that is likened to “building a cathedral within a cathedral”.

In contracts, SMRs would be created on a factory line by the dozen and then transported to where they are needed and plugged in. In theory, this makes them the cheaper option. Many countries, including Russia, South Korea, and Argentina, are turning to the nuclear-friendly UK to realise this idea.

“There’s a lot of terrific things about the UK market that makes it the right place to deploy new nuclear technology,” said Tom Mundy, head of programme development at US company NuScale. “It’s got a government committed to reducing carbon and seeing nuclear as one of the solutions, and it has got a substantial and pre-eminent legacy of nuclear operations – a trained and capable workforce and a nuclear supply chain.”

So far the UK has commissioned five studies, at a cost of around £4.5m, to explore the potential of SMRs. Energy secretary Amber Rudd told MPs earlier this month: “We are fully enthused about SMRs.”

A report from the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), funded by the government, suggested a “very significant” global market for SMRs by 2035 (65-85 gigawatts), with dozens of SMRs sited in the UK (7GW). The report predicted the market would be worth between £250 and £400 billion.

An SMR is classed as a reactor that produces less than 300MW (0.3GW) of electricity, which is far less than the 1,000MW (1GW) produced by many existing nuclear plants. SMRs can also vary their output quickly, an advantage that means they can be used to balance the intermittent energy generated from wind and solar, unlike normal nuclear power plants.

Small reactors are not new however. Many have been in use for over 50 years aboard military submarines and ships. Their application is “completely different from civil nuclear electricity” in design though, Mr Munday said.

Small reactors have also been used to power a remote site in Siberia since 1976 and a US base in Antarctica since the 1960s. No true assembly line SMRs have ever been built however.

Giorgio Locatelli from the University of Leeds said finding the best company for an SMR design means looking for scale and experience. Main contenders are Westinghouse in the US, NuScale in Korea – which has recently signed a deal with Saudi Arabia – and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).

“The Chinese government has a pile of money to invest,” Locatelli said.

CNNC’s chief designer for SMRs, Danrong Song, attended a conference in London in October and pitched a technical plan for “cooperation with UK industry”. The partnership would seem to be ideal as the CNNC is already working with Rolls Royce and the SMR plan would mirror that of the large Chinese nuclear plant at Bradwell in Essex.

Song also added the China itself would provide a large market for the consumption of SMRs.

“A lot of air pollution in China is caused by fossil fuel plants, so with SMRs we can reduce that,” he said.

Due to fact that nuclear plants require a lot of cooling water, they typically have to be built on the coast. This is not practical for China. SMRs however can take advantage of air cooling due to their small size and can therefore be used inland.

The CNNC design would produce 120MW of electricity and be small enough to be put on a ship, Song said. It would need to be refuelled every two years. CNNC has already signed an agreement with Lloyd’s Register to develop regulations for marine nuclear transportation.

Kristiina Soderholm from Finnish energy company Fortum said such ships could be floating power plants. Her idea is that an SMR could be placed on a ship, taken to a country, plugged into their grid from the port, and then sail back again once the fuel is used up.

She said this idea would be very attractive to countries that are new to nuclear power.

It would also not be the first time such a task has been performed. In the 60s a US nuclear-powered ship docked by the Panama canal and provided onshore electricity.

Russia has been promising a floating SMR for many years, but the project has been repeatedly delayed. The cause of the delays is unclear however.

Westinghouse, a part of Toshiba and one of the world’s biggest nuclear companies, is steering away from floating reactors and sticking to land-based power with a 225MW SMR.

“There’s a unique opportunity for the UK to move from being a buyer to a provider,” said Jeff Benjamin, head of new build and major programmes. “We hope the build out of our SMR will happen here in the UK … but then use this as a base to export globally.”

Westinghouse made a proposal to the UK in October to form a new company in which the UK government and industry take a stake and then share development costs. Benjamin considers the deal “necessary to move the market forward in the UK”, but ministers are still considering the offer.

A large potential customer for SMRs in Europe is Poland. The country is wholly coal-dependent and often criticised internationally for its reluctance to reduce carbon emissions.

“I want to persuade the UK to partner with Poland: it has the skills, we have the need,” Grzegorz Wrochna, director of Poland’s National Centre for Nuclear Research, told the London summit.

The SMR being offered by NuScale is somewhat smaller than that designed by Westinghouse. Providing 50MW of electricity, the small size is to maximise the number of places it can be sited, Mundy said. The 23m-long device is “the biggest you can get on the road”. However, its modular nature means that if more power is needed more reactors can be installed side-by-side. Backed by a £143m cost-sharing deal from the US Department of Energy, the company plans to start generating electricity in Idaho by 2023.

Other SMR contenders are US-based Generation mPower, which is also backed by the US DoE, along with Bill Gates-funded Terrapower. CAREM in Argentina also has a plant close to completion, having been started originally for use in submarines.

Despite the drive to separate itself from the usual problems faced by normal nuclear plants, SMRs have fallen victim to familiar challenges: cost, public acceptability, security, and waste disposal. The nuclear industry is plagued by a long record of broken promises over cost – reactors like Hinkley being built by EDF in France and Finland are billions over budget and years behind schedule.

The development of SMRs is also going to be a large cost factor. Designing them will cost £500m alone, estimates David Orr, head of nuclear business development at Rolls Royce. He said between 40 and 70 SMRs would need to be ordered for it to be worth building a factor to make them.

Industry figures suggest that the cost of electricity from the first SMRs should be about the same as large nuclear power plants, and then steadily get cheaper. However, Locatelli says “we don’t know yet if the cost of electricity from an SMR is going to be cheaper than from big plants, but the risk is lower.” This is because the capital needed to build an SMR is smaller. Competition from renewable energy gets hotter as it establishes itself and its own prices fall, however.

Although most new energy projects face opposition, overall support for large nuclear power plants has been strong from the public and the government, professor Andrew Sherry, chief scientist at the UK’s NNL, said.

However, SMRs would be a lot closer to people’s homes, within 20 to 40 miles. “Would people accept district heating from nuclear?” Sherry asks.

Security is another key issue for nuclear. Ontario’s Bruce Power runs the largest nuclear site in the world and the company employs “the largest tactical unit outside the military”, according to Frank Saunders, head of nuclear oversight and regulatory affairs at the company.

Security challenges only increase as the size of the reactors gets smaller, and SMRs would potentially mean having to provide security for multiple locations. “The security costs are hugely magnified when you go to smaller units,” said Saunders.

Although SMRs may turn out to be far more fuel efficient than earlier generations of reactor, the permanent disposal of nuclear waste is still a touchy issue around the world. No deep geological repository has yet been approved.

Despite these obstacles engineer Gordon Waddington, who led the NNL report, is confident that the demand for low-carbon electricity spells out a future for SMRs. “I am absolutely certain that China will get very good at [SMRs]. They need it and they will get there,” he said.

The next few years are critical to the widespread use of SMRs, Waddington said, and the UK has a once-in-a-generation chance to be a part of it.