Are small nuclear reactors really the answer to our green energy crisis? Small nuclear reactors are hailed as an answer to our energy crisis, but Jon Yeomans finds problems remain with the untested technology. Trawsfynydd’s fortunes could be about to change. It has been proposed as a possible site for a new type of nuclear reactor to be built by a consortium led by Rolls-Royce. Small modular reactors (SMRs) offer the promise of a new fleet of power stations that could be produced in a factory, loaded on to lorries and then trucked around the country for installation on decommissioned nuclear sites. The government believes these so-called “mini-nukes” will form a key part of its “green recovery” and is close to approving £215 million in funding to speed their development. The hope is that they could reduce the cost of nuclear power dramatically and help the UK to hit its target of net-zero emissions by 2050. But nothing is ever simple with nuclear. Can this dream become reality? With large-scale nuclear projects under a cloud, the government has warmed to the idea of smaller, nimbler technology, such as the SMRs proposed by Rolls-Royce. The Derby-based company is better known for producing aircraft engines, but since the 1960s it has also been responsible for the reactors on Britain’s nuclear submarines. These pressurised water reactors (PWRs) will form the basis of the SMRs it proposes to build in the UK. The big selling point of SMRs is that they can be made on a production line, reducing the huge costs of a project such as Hinkley. Rolls claims they solve “the conundrum of how to create affordable energy, and more of it, with a lower carbon footprint”. It says the scheme could generate £52 billion of “economic benefit” by 2050. The company’s SMRs will have a price tag of about £2 billion each, once the initial costs of building the factory are out of the way. It is thought Rolls would need to make 16 before the programme could pay its way, with financial support from the government required for at least the first four units. The SMRs would have a capacity of 470MW — enough to power one million homes. Critics of SMRs note there are few, if any, operating anywhere in the world. The American company Westinghouse is developing a lead-cooled reactor with 450MW capacity which won £10 million in UK government funding last year. NuScale, based in Oregon, is working on SMRs with an output of 77MW. But its first plant will not be operational until 2027. If the government gives the green light, Rolls will spend the next four years seeking approval from regulators while simultaneously building the first of a projected three factories in the UK. Company sources suggested the factories themselves could be a “levelling up” opportunity, bringing high-skilled jobs to the regions. It would take another four years for the first reactor to roll off the production line, pushing their start date into the next decade. Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at Greenwich University, said the falling cost of wind and solar power, coupled with new technology to store energy off the grid for times when it is needed, made nuclear largely redundant. “It’s too expensive, takes too long to develop, and we can’t afford to wait for it,” he said. A report by National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator) this year envisaged at least two pathways to net zero by 2050 that did not rely on a large increase in nuclear. Instead, the gap in output would be made up by more renewable energy; more energy storage, in the form of batteries; and changing consumer behaviour to lower energy demand.
Times 3rd Oct 2021 read more »