The UK Government should work with industry to better understand the economics of ‘baby’ nuclear power plants – aka small modular reactors (SMRs) – and to set out a clear explanation of the conditions under which they might become cost competitive in the UK.
It will be important to understand the future cost comparison with large-scale nuclear reactors as well as the comparison with other small-scale energy generation or demand management – according to a new report published today by MPs on the Westminster Parliament’s Energy and Climate Change Committee.
Small Modular Reactors are designed in a way that allows them to be manufactured at a plant and brought to site fully-constructed, thereby potentially improving manufacturing efficiency and cost while reducing construction time and financing costs.
While the small power output of an SMR means that electricity will cost more per MW than it would from a larger reactor, the initial cost of building the plant is much less than that of constructing a much more complex, non-modular, large nuclear plant. It makes an SMR a smaller-risk venture for power companies than other nuclear power plants. ]
Small reactors are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as those with an electricity output of less than 300 Mwe. SMRs produce anywhere from 10 to 300 megawatts, rather than the 1,000 megawatts produced by a typical reactor
They have a range of useful applications, including industrial process heat, desalination or water purification, and other cogeneration applications. MPs said:
“Small Modular Reactors could potentially have a key role to play in delivering low carbon energy at lower upfront capital cost compared to large conventional nuclear reactors.
“The challenges faced in making SMRs commercially viable represent an opportunity for our world-class manufacturing industry. Collaboration with international partners is important and the Government must ensure that UK companies are in a position to compete for these opportunities.
“That said, the commercial viability of SMRs remains unclear.”
Deployment of SMRs is likely to be achieved through sharing the costs between the public and private sector and the Committee would like to see the Government steering industry towards deploying a demonstrator SMR in the UK.
MPs believe the Government should help to establish the right conditions for investment in SMRs, for example through supporting the regulator to bring forward approvals in the UK, and by setting out a clear view of siting options.
Many of the barriers to deployment of small nuclear reactors in the UK are similar to the challenges of deploying larger conventional reactors, i.e. capital cost, lead times, uncertainty over both of these factors, regulatory approvals, and potential volatility in political and social support.
Rigorous safety assessment will be important, the report says: small nuclear reactors will generally raise similar questions of safety and security to those raised by large nuclear reactors. In the future, new technologies may bring with them the possibility of improved technical features in nuclear reactors, for example through enhanced safety or through reuse of waste materials.
The UK already has robust processes in place to ensure the safe and secure operation and maintenance of the plant as well as transportation and management of fuel and spent fuel.
The Committee is calling on DECC to ensure that the Office for Nuclear Regulation is adequately resourced to support SMR developers in the early stages of preparing their designs for approval.
The UK Nuclear Industry Association – the trade body for British atomic power companies – declined to comment.