Ever since the Wylfa nuclear power plant on Anglesey stopped generating electricity in December 2015, communities on the Welsh island that are supportive of atomic power have been waiting for its revival.
This week that likelihood increased when the UK government named a site near where the old reactors are being decommissioned as a possible location for a new large-scale plant or the first place in the UK to host a new technology under development, known as small modular reactors (SMRs).
One of the big selling points of SMRs is that they promise huge cost savings over traditional large-scale reactors. Rolls-Royce, the UK engineering group which is leading a consortium to produce a UK design, expects the first five SMR reactors to cost £2.2bn each, falling to £1.8bn for subsequent units.
The government’s decision this week to give nuclear a central role in its net zero emissions strategy has given fresh impetus to replacing Britain’s existing reactors, which are all due to be retired by the end of 2035. Ministers committed a total of £505m in funding to the nuclear initiative, which calls for a mix of large plants, SMRs and other emerging technologies.
More than £200m of that funding is soon expected to be channelled into the consortium led by Rolls-Royce. It has been seeking private match-funding so it can submit its SMR reactor design to the extensive regulatory approval process before the end of the year.
Wylfa had been earmarked for a new plant under British plans to build a new generation of large-scale reactors, financed mainly by the private sector, that dates back to 2006. But successive governments have struggled to attract private capital to these projects, where cost-overruns are commonplace because of the engineering risks in such complex structures.
So far work has only started on one: Hinkley Point C in Somerset and costs have spiralled with the latest estimate put at £23bn. The developer behind the proposed Wylfa plant, Japan’s Hitachi, pulled the plug last year after failing to reach a financing agreement with the UK government, although a US consortium is trying to resurrect it.
The UK is not alone in pushing smaller reactors. Other governments around the world looking to tap nuclear power to meet their challenging decarbonisation targets are also showing interest in the technology. Along with the promise of much lower build costs, the smaller power plants are also attractive because of their footprint. The UK, for example, has a limited number of sites suitable for large plants.
France, one of the world’s leaders in nuclear engineering, this month announced €1bn in funding for state-backed utility EDF to develop its own SMR technology by the early 2030s.
The technology is similar to existing pressurised water reactors that are used in nuclear power plants today. But the key difference is that the small, modular design would allow the parts to be built in factories ready for quick assembly at the chosen location. This, SMR advocates argue, not only cuts costs and the long lead times but also avoids many of the construction risks that bedevil larger plants.
“Being able to build things 24/7 in a factory . . . enables you to do things in a faster timeframe because you’re not relying on having to do things on a site that is weather dependent,” explained Dr Fiona Rayment, chief science and technology officer at the UK government-owned National Nuclear Laboratory.
Rolls-Royce is tight-lipped about its SMR fundraising but Tom Samson, who heads the consortium, said he was in talks with a “number of interested investors and developers in deploying the technology”.
If the design gets regulatory approval, a process that can take up to five years, Rolls-Royce believes it could complete its first 470 megawatt SMR plant by 2031. After that it expects to build two units a year.
At 470MW the plant would have a generating capacity similar to some of Britain’s earliest reactors but would be about seven times less capable than the proposed next large-scale plant in the UK: Sizewell C on England’s east coast.
SMRs are not the only miniaturised nuclear technology the government hopes will be commercialised. Nor are these mini-nukes seen as just a reliable source of low carbon electricity for the grid, something renewables cannot offer without big advances in battery technology. They are seen as a possible solution to help decarbonise heavy industry.
“Typically we have gone with large reactors over the years because we have absolutely focused on baseload electricity,” said Rayment. “Nowadays . . . it’s about producing energy as opposed to just electricity.”
Among those other options are what the UK dubs “advanced modular reactors”. One of the most viable designs looks to be a high temperature gas-cooled reactor. The technology is being tested in a number of countries, including Japan.
The government set a target this week of having the first advanced modular reactor demonstrator in Britain “in the early 2030s”.
But analysts question whether any of these technologies would be commercialised in time to help the UK reach its 2035 target for a carbon neutral grid.
Moreover, some environmentalists argue a big challenge is the UK’s lack of experience with modularisation manufacturing techniques that are key to their economics.
“We have never done it,” said Tom Burke, co-founder of E3G, a climate think-tank, arguing that modularisation would require a “very large factory” that could only be funded with a long line of orders.
Burke questioned how it would be possible to secure those orders when the first SMR is, as yet, unproven.
But Rolls-Royce’s Samson remains unfazed. In contrast to future large atomic plants, which are likely to require a financing model that will be underpinned by British households through their energy bills, modularisation promises a radical shift in funding nuclear power.
He conceded that government backing would be needed to help finance the initial manufacturing set-up and first orders but insisted private capital would ultimately pay for the bulk of the fleet. “This is an important transition for us.”
Credit: Source link