Experts to Parliament: Small reactors can boost UK nuclear
Deploy them in altogether new locations for huge leap in clean affordable energy they say, as House of Commons “SMR” hearings continue
Industrial electricity users who want to reduce their reliance on the grid and on volatile fossil fuels could install small modular nuclear reactors on their site to ensure a constant electricity supply, an expert has advised a UK Parliamentary committee that is investigating the potential uses for alternative nuclear power in Britain.
The novel reactors would thus help significantly increase nuclear electricity’s share of the country’s energy mix said the expert, Dr. Fiona Rayment, director of fuel cycle solutions for the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory, a government owned and operated facility. A greater contribution from nuclear generation, which does not emit CO2, would help the country meet its legal obligation to slash 2050 CO2 emissions by 80 percent compared to 1990 levels.
Proponents of small modular reactors (SMRs) point out that because of their smaller size and certain safety advantages, SMRs could be installed on more sites than just the eight that the UK government has approved for conventional, large reactors. SMRs have a capacity of around 300 megawatts or less, compared to well over 1,000 megawatts (1 gigawatt) for traditional behemoths. They are physically much smaller and do not require the massive amount of cooling water which in the UK has restricted nuclear plants to eight sites along the sea.
“Some heavy industrial users of energy have expressed interest in having secure, reliable power generation on-site or nearby, to provide a degree of insurance against future energy price volatility or interruption,” Rayment said in written evidence to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) ahead of her oral testimony on July 8, which was the second in an ongoing series of hearings.
In her written statement, Rayment said that SMRs would be well suited to answer that call, and could therefore help the UK triple its nuclear generating capacity to around 30 GW. The country’s current 10-GW capacity provides about 18 percent of Britain’s electricity.
When asked by the committee during live questioning whether any industrial users were themselves actually promoting the idea of on-site SMRs, she candidly replied, “not at this moment.”
But, she added, “There are a number of discussions that are ongoing on where small modular reactors could offer a lot of value and opportunity…The key areas where there seems to be real optimism, in terms of where they could be used, are being able to site them close to that industry. So where you have issues, for example, currently with grid infrastructure and so being able to have a power plant that is very close to where that industry needs the electricity, could offer value. Especially if you have a plant itself that can…deal with peaks and troughs in demand, which some of these systems very much can.”
Similarly, another expert pointed out that SMRs could broaden the number of possible locations for nuclear plants to include inland locations.
“As a result of their smaller size and lower power output SMRs can be accommodated on a wider range of sites than larger reactors,” wrote Dame Sue Ion, chair of the UK government’s Nuclear Innovation Research and Advisory Board (NIRAB) in her evidence ahead of the panel where she testified along with Rayment. “For example this could allow SMRs to be built on sites where a limited availability of cooling water might not support a larger reactor. In other parts of the world SMRs could be used to supply local energy needs in the absence of a national grid for power distribution.”
Their observations echoed testimony from the committee’s first hearing two weeks earlier, when experts said SMRs could conceivably ratchet up Britain’s nuclear capacity to 40 gigawatts via installations in locations beyond traditional coastal sites. In the earlier hearing, on June 24, the witnesses also pointed out that SMRs could not only generate electricity, but could also provide heat for districting heating and could power hydrogen production.
The House of Commons committee’s mission includes investigating the possibility of using SMRs as a source of heat to drive industrial processes.
At the July 8 session, there was little talk of nuclear for industrial heat, perhaps because the panel kicked off with testimonies from three SMR companies that, for all of their innovations, do not offer “high temperature” reactors. Executives testified from NuScale Power and from Babcock & Wilcox’s Generation mPower group, as well as from GE-Hitachi’s PRISM operations. NuScale and B&W are developing small versions of conventional reactors that operate at conventional temperatures of around 300 degrees C. GEH’s PRISM departs from conventional designs and operates at closer to 500 degrees C, which is not as hot as some of the 700-degree C and higher designs for reactors such as molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors and prismatic block reactors.
One point that almost all the experts have emphasized is that SMRs lower the capital cost of deploying nuclear because they allow users to purchase smaller increments of nuclear power. In addition, some SMR enthusiasts believe SMRs offer another cost advantage because they can be manufactured in assembly line fashion and thus in the long run will be cheaper to build than today’s large, onsite construction projects.
The cost argument is one that could resonate in Britain, where the nuclear industry including utility EDF has struggled to land financing and government assurances for two new large reactors set for construction at the Hinkley Point site in the southwest of England, where about 3.3 gigawatts will cost an estimated £16 billion ($27 million).
As Dame Sue Ion noted in her oral testimony, SMRs offer a number of potential advantages:
“One is the ability to add smaller amounts to the grid, so better from a grid management perspective and better from a siting perspective if you do not have access to large grid capacity, but also potentially in terms of the economics. The thing that dominates the cost of nuclear energy is the capital required and its cost of financing, which is close on 60% of the overall generating costs, certainly greater than 50%. That is what it means. It is getting increasingly difficult to finance the very large plants as we found with Hinkley Point, where it is even beyond the balance sheet of a large company like EDF and required Chinese investment in order to make the project go ahead. Small modular reactors, although they may be the same or even more expensive on a bit per kilowatt, bits per megawatt, the fact that you can build them in small slugs means that you borrow money over a shorter period of time and the amount you have to borrow is a smaller absolute amount of capital. It means they are potentially easier to finance than the large base load units that we see elsewhere in the market.”
One possible difficulty that SMRs face in some countries is that regulatory processes favor conventional designs. In the U.S., for instance, critics have pointed out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is ill-prepared to look at novel reactor designs.
Both Ion and Rayment suggested that UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) could tailor its procedures to ensure that novel SMRs get prompt consideration.
“One of the benefits that the UK regulatory system has is that it is flexible and it is goal oriented, not rule tick-in-the-box based,” Ion said, noting the ONR and the NRC could work together to hep establish global regulations.
The House committee should soon learn more about these possibilities: It is scheduled to question ONR’s chief executive John Jenkins, and its chief nuclear inspector, Andy Hall, on July 22. Stay tuned.
Photo is a screen grab from Parliament TV