UK considers how to use small reactor opportunity

18 October 2016

Small modular reactors offer significant benefits to the UK, experts have said, but government must clarify whether it wants near-term deployment or maximum value to domestic industry, while industry has to efficiently mass produce to realise economic savings.

"All SMRs share advantages over large nuclear in terms of siting flexibility, potential operational flexibility, grid stability, and potential use of heat," Richard Beake of Atkins told a London conference today. He was presenting to the Nuclear Energy Insider Small Reactor UK Summit on Atkins' contribution to a Techno-Economic Assessment (TEA) on SMRs commissioned by the UK government, and due to be published soon.

The report is meant to inform government, he said, "as to the potential of SMRs to contribute to the generation of low-carbon electricity at affordable prices in the UK". It is technology neutral, having taken and anonymised vendor input on 15 reactor designs originating from five countries.

It found that of all the designs, the integrated pressurized water reactors are most technologically ready with a view to deployment before 2030. They are also the most compatible with existing UK nuclear infrastructure in terms of fuel manufacturing, waste disposal and regulatory experience. However, the less-developed designs offer more potential for UK intellectual property and economic gain in the longer term, which is also attractive for government in setting its strategy.

"The government is not yet decided on policy balance between getting nuclear capacity online soon, or maximising the economic impact and UK intellectual property," said Andrew Sherry, chief scientist of the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory.

Publication of the TEA, clarity on the policy balance, and a roadmap for deployment of SMRs in Britain are all expected to come at once towards the end of this year or early in 2017. The matter has been delayed by the reorganisation of the UK government, and in particular the incorporation of the former Department for Energy and Climate Change into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

One size doesn't fit all

Existing large nuclear reactor designs are designed for economies of scale, producing up to 1700 MWe, whereas SMRs would produce only up to 300 MWe each, some designs much less than that. The success of SMRs therefore depends on rebalancing the equation of nuclear economics away from economies of scale and towards economies of volume. On this subject Miranda Kirschel spoke for EY, which has carried out the economic aspects of the same government Techno-Economic Assessment.

Kirschel said SMRs offer a better opportunity for learning than large reactors, for example greater modularisation, higher volume of deployment and greater pace of deployment. And across a country, the most optimal level of operation can be reached with less overall capacity.

She said that vendors and manufacturers must get organised now with an integrated supply chain, design their reactor units for 'Nth of a kind', and optimise their business model for delivery.

Kirschel concluded, "Given what we know about learner rates and detailed economic analysis - our findings show that the UK market alone is not big enough to realise the true economic benefits of SMRs." There are several aspects of nuclear plant development, for example licensing, in which smaller reactors have no advantage over large units and could even be more challenging for novel designs.

Alongside other vendors, Rolls-Royce took the opportunity to reveal more details of its SMR offering, which the company's director of engineering and technology, John Molyneux, said would be a light-water reactor "ideally at the higher end of the power levels".

Rolls-Royce foresees itself potentially deploying 7 GWe of its SMR in the UK, starting before 2030, with a "conservative" further 9 GWe internationally. This means something like 54 of the units Rolls-Royce proposes to design as leader of consortium of British firms and universities. Rolls-Royce said a predominantly British product like its concept could generate £188 billion for the country's economy and employ 40,000 people at peak.

Globally, the National Nuclear Laboratory considers the potential market for SMRs of all kinds to be up to 85 GWe by 2035.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News