SMR – the future for UK nuclear?

Following the Nuclear Industry Association’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) conference it seems a good point to review where SMR developments are now and future prospects. There have been many hopes expressed that SMRs as a new technology could allow the UK to again be at the forefront of designing and fabricating nuclear power stations. With the new May Government espousing the concept of a national industrial strategy this has been seen at a political level as well as by the industry as a golden opportunity.

However, views are not unanimous about what these developments might mean for the UK. For some it represents the future – and possibly the near future – for the UK nuclear sector providing better economics and British designed and built technology which we can then export around the world. For others it is a side show if an interesting one.

One of the reasons for this is that while the debate may be about SMRs we are not talking about a single product. Indeed, this was a point made by EY at the NIA conference. There are a class of SMRs which are essentially scaled down (and integrated) pressurised water reactors (PWRs). These reactors are certainly deployable in the next decade and do not present any significant licensing challenges as the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has recently confirmed to Parliament. However, these reactors are a scaled down version of ones which were previously so large to improve the economics. Smaller versions may not be economical (although there are other advantages, notably ability to deploy to smaller sites and easier decommissioning). The second set of reactors are broadly Generation IV reactors (particularly high temperature, metal cooled or molten salt reactors) and so there is considerable research still to be done on them and it is unlikely that any of them could be deployed before 2030.

It was clear from Energy Minister, Jesse Norman’s recent appearance in front of the House of Lords, Science and Technology Committee that the Government is also seeing this split and is taking differing approaches to the two. While the Minister made reference to the change of Prime Minister having delayed the announcement of the result of the Government SMR competition it is clear that the assessment process is playing its part. What we did learn is that for the first group of reactors the Government feels that they can assess the likely path of cost reductions and the extent of the likely global market and then make funding decisions accordingly. However, the Minister also pointed out that this class of reactors would have limited UK design input. For the second group given that they were much further away from potential deployment there was greater opportunity for the UK to input into their development but that the market was much more uncertain. For this group the Ministers said they would be looking to assess the value of the research generated to the UK and decisions on funding will be assessed that way.

So it remains very unclear as to what the outcome of the SMR competition will be (or when it will be announced) but it seems the Government are still committed to delivering something on the issue. So who is right when looking to the future of SMRs, are they the future? It is clear that in the medium term this is dependent on the outcome of the Government’s competition. Without a considerable amount of Government support it seems unlikely that the first generation of SMRs will be deployed. However recent evidence would suggest that research into the second generation of SMRs could have significant potential for the UK. From what we have heard recently it seems that this is a view that the Government agrees with but nevertheless they do not seem likely to make an imminent decision.