New energy minister Andrea Leadsom has given the strongest signal yet that the Government is looking to support a new era of factory-built, nuclear power stations - with a Newcastle company leading the way on their development in the UK.
Amidst a growing sense of frustration and hand-wringing over the delays in the current nuclear programme, new hope has emerged that support is on the way for a home-grown generation of Small Modular Reactors (SMR).
Newcastle company Penultimate Power, formed by long-standing nuclear power advocate Ian Fells, emeritus professor of energy at Newcastle University, was created in 2012 to develop SMRs.
It is the only UK company positioned to do so and wants to develop a manufacturing plant in the region and trial the world’s first SMR on land next to the existing Hartlepool nuclear power plant.
A recently published Governemnt report concluded there is a massive opportunity for the UK and its supply chain to become a world-leader.
And now the Government has committed a further £3m on additional work to determine the potential development and deployment of SMRs - having acknowledged there is a two-year time window for Britain to become a world-leader.
Last week, the new energy minister spoke openly for the possibly the first time on the new Conservative Government wish to progress SMRs.
Speaking at the Nuclear Industry Association conference Ms Leadsom said: “Small Modular Reactors are an option we are investigating further. These have the potential to drive down the cost of nuclear energy and make financing easier through shorter construction times and lower initial capital investment requirements, in addition to high-value commercial opportunities.”
A Government-commissioned study, published late last year, and funded in part by UK companies Rolls Royce, Atkins and Amec concluded that SMRs could work out at £67/MWh circa - 20% less than the current nuclear programme and cheaper than all other existing renewable energy sources.
The current nuclear programme sees the UK committed to developing at least five new power stations, contributing 16GW of low carbon electricity by 2025, when almost all of the existing fleet will be closed down.
However, hopes work will soon commence on the first of these reactors, known as Hinkley Point C in Somerset and costing over £20bn, have faded in recent months with the programme beset by financial and technical problems.
While the Government is expected to continue to support these schemes, it is now looking at SMRs as a way of supplementing its nuclear programme, and as a cost-effective way of allowing the UK to hit its emission reduction targets.
From being in a position a decade ago where nuclear power was almost completely off the UK energy map it has now moved centre stage and there is a growing support for SMRs.
Last December’s SMR feasibility study says there is an opportunity for the ‘UK to regain technology leadership in the ownership and development of low-carbon generation and secure energy supplies’.
The report says: “This has the potential to position the UK as a global technology vendor in these fields, and consequently to spearhead the development of the UK supply chain, enabling British businesses to develop their capability, and increase international trade.
“After two decades of development on SMRs, the last three to four years has witnessed a significant acceleration in the pace of the technology progression by many of the major reactor vendors across the globe, bringing SMRs much closer to market as a low-carbon, large scale energy source, and making them a potentially attractive technology.
“There is a clear need for deeper investigation into the individual technologies and the capability required to deliver them to market, further financial analysis to clarify the economics case, and a testing of the possible engagement models for the UK to partner with a selected SMR technology vendor.
“Overall however, on initial review, this study concludes that there could be a significant market for SMRs and the UK has a narrow window of opportunity to participate in a joint development with a partner country, which could offer the UK a position as a market leader in nuclear low-carbon generation.”
Candida Whitmill, managing director of Penultimate Power UK, said: “We welcome the Government’s ongoing interest in exploring the massive potential that small modular reactors have to provide affordable, low carbon energy for the next generation.
“This is a great opportunity for our UK nuclear supply chain, particularly here in the North East and we look forward to continuing to work with Government and our partners to bring a successful project to fruition.”
Prof Fells says there are some 150 North East supply chain companies who could benefit from the development of SMRs in the region.
He said: “We are the only company in the UK committed to building SMRs and we want to do that here in the North East. The aim is to establish a production line, and create UK jobs, unlike in the wind industry where the turbines are made overseas in Germany and Denmark.
“We think the most feasible site is next to the existing EDF nuclear plant at Hartlepool. We can create a global market from here in the North East, but we have to get on with it. There is a two-year window of opportunity which may close if we don’t make progress.”
SMRs are generally smaller than conventional nuclear power stations, in a range between 45MW and 300MW, helping cut construction lead times from 10 to three years.
“SMRs can be fabricated, fueled and sealed in the factory then delivered to the site ready for use cutting the construction costs and risks associated with larger reactors,” said Prof Fells.
“By developing our own SMRs in the UK we can support our homegrown supply chain and help it grow and prosper and create hundreds of new jobs,” he added.
The new study will look further at the technology available. While there are six main designs the Government has whittled this down to four including US companies Westinghouse and mPower.
The new study also expected to recommend a level of Government financial support to get the industry started and secure investor confidence, as with most other non-fossil fuel forms of energy.
Last year’s feasibility study says: “Government support for the fundamental R&D that SMRs still require would change the UK nuclear industries perception of the overall risks for the SMR market. “It is more likely that shareholders would be prepared to stand behind their organisations if they see a change to the risk to reward equation. There are many other areas where Government signalling its determination to support an SMR industry would also be seen as a positive sign, like suitably licensed sites, but without financial support for the R&D engineering in the short term these initiatives alone will not be sufficient.
“There is every possibility of industry changing its position if a national programme can address some of the challenges. Furthermore governmental commitment to an R&D programme would convince industry that their interest is ultimately focussed on affordable electricity and therefore there is the potential for UK industry to make money for their shareholders in the long term.”
A spokesperson for DECC said: “The Government’s on-going priority is to ensure the success of Hinkley Point C and other planned conventional new nuclear power stations which can sit alongside other low-carbon technologies in our future energy mix.
“Small Modular Reactors are an option we are investigating further. These have the potential to drive down the cost of nuclear energy and make financing easier through shorter construction times and lower initial capital investment requirements, in addition to high-value commercial opportunities.
“However, since SMRs are in the early stages of development, there are no commercially operational examples that can be used to validate this potential. So Government has initiated work to build a greater factual base on SMRs, following the feasibility study of last year.”
Commenting on the newly-commissioned report, which is due to publish early next year, the spokesperson added: “We want this phase of work to build a robust evidence base that will inform ministerial decisions on whether to support the development and deployment of SMRs in the UK.”________________________
In a debate last month on the termination of subsides for onshore wind one North East peer described SMRs as one of the ‘greatest developments of our age’.
Life peer, the Conservative Lord Vinson, of Roddam Dene, near Alnwick, said: “My Lords, as we learn from experience which type of renewable to back and which not to back, and as wind turbines have shown themselves to produce extremely expensive electricity due to their intermittency, would the Minister consider moving on to one of the greatest developments of our age, which is small nuclear reactors?
“That means that, instead of having one huge nuclear power station that probably takes 10 to 14 years to develop, you could have 10 factory-built nuclear units in a row - if one is closed down for maintenance, the other nine continue to work.
“This is the technology of tomorrow, which will give us limitless CO2-free cheap energy. Will the Government consider putting some serious resource into this to make Britain a world leader in this technology?”
In response to the question Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, Under Secretary of State for the Department of Energy, replied: “My Lords, renewables are important, but it is absolutely right that some renewables are intermittent and we therefore need back-up.
“Nuclear is certainly vital to us and we need it. We are looking at the possibility - I put it no stronger than that - of smaller nuclear as an additional part of the mix.”