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UK prepared to regulate small modular reactors

Country’s chief nuclear inspector tells Parliament that the time for approval should be no more than with conventional models

Lakeside revival: The disused Trawsfynydd nuclear site on a lake in northern Wales could come alive again as a site for a small modular reactor.

The time it would take to approve and license a small modular reactor in the UK would be no longer than the time it takes with a conventional large reactor, the country’s’ chief nuclear inspector assured Parliament this week.

The testimony from Andy Hall, chief nuclear inspector at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), should allay concerns that the regulator might be ill-prepared to review SMR applications. Regulatory processes in some countries, like the U.S., are not structured to accommodate novel reactor designs and instead focus on conventional, large, light water reactors.

“ONR would anticipate that taking a small reactor of novel design through a Generic Design Assessment process would take a similar time to that taken to assess an evolutionary design of a large reactor,” Hall said in written evidence submitted prior to his oral testimony to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) on July 22. “This could be around 4 years depending on resource availability with an additional two or more years to review a subsequent site-specific license application.”

The committee is investigating whether SMRs could become part of the country’s energy mix and thus help Britain meet stringent CO2 reduction targets. SMRs are physically much smaller than conventional reactors and have a capacity of 300 megawatts or less, compared with conventional reactors which easily exceed 1,000 megawatts, over which they offer many potential benefits. Both offer carbon-free generation.

The hearing was the third this summer, and many of this round’s questions focused on regulatory issues and whether ONR was even capable of reviewing SMRs.

UNRULY

Hall explained that ONR’s process differs from the one that the U.S.’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) practices in that ONR takes an approach based on “goals” and “risks,” compared to the NRC’s “rules-based” approach.

“As the regulator, we do not have to go through a lengthy rule-making process in order to enable a licensee to make an application,” he said in response to a question from committee chairman and member of parliament (MP) Tim Yeo. “It can come to us and essentially it then has the opportunity to make the case for safety, to set out the standards that it is seeking to achieve, to set out how it is going to manage the risk associated with nuclear hazard, and then, as the regulator, we can come back and assess that. That is what we have done with a wide range of technologies in the UK. We may be unique as a nuclear safety regulator in the range of different facilities we regulate, from reactors, fuel reprocessing plants, defense sites, and so on. That has been enabled by this goal-setting approach that we have.”

Supporters of alternative reactors like molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors, fast neutron reactors and others – many of which fall into the SMR category – often complain that existing regulatory processes such as those in the U.S. discourage true nuclear innovation. SMRs potentially provide lower cost nuclear options. And many of the designs are safer, yield less waste, and are more useful than conventional reactors. MSRs and PBRs, for instance, can operate at much higher temperatures and are thus potential sources not just for generating electricity but also as a source of industrial heat for processes in the cement, steel, oil and petrochemical industries. They are also potential engines for hydrogen production.

Hall acknowledged that it would probably be faster to approve an SMR based on shrunken, conventional designs than it would be to approve one of the more “exotic” models.

“Of course, with small modular reactors there is the potential for more exotic designs (like) liquid metal-cooled designs, lead-cooled designs and so forth, as well as water and gas-cooled designs,” he said. “We and the industry would have to develop our understanding of those.”

Asked by MP Graham Stringer if it would be more expedient to stick with more proven techologies, Hall replied:

“I think it is clearly going to be easier to adopt an evolutionary approach, both for licensees because they do not have to develop vast new skill sets and for ourselves for similar reasons, where you work with an existing design or a class of designs like pressurized water reactors or boiling water reactors and then almost play tunes on that, rather than go to a completely different technology such as metal-cooled reactors or the thorium cycle. The further you move away from the area that the industry and ourselves understand very well, the more the work that will need to be done and the more the investment that will be needed in order to prepare both sides to deploy that technology.”

LOCATION LOCATION AND MORE LOCATION

Echoing points from witnesses in previous hearings, Hall noted that SMRs would enable the UK to expand the number and types of sites where it could locate reactors, beyond just the eight coastal locations that currently have government approval.

For instance, Hall pointed out that if some of the more advanced reactor designs prove to be meltdown proof, as claimed by developers, then that would open up siting possibilities closer to urban areas.

And as other witnesses have pointed out, SMRs would require much less cooling water (especially some designs that rely on coolants other than water, such as gas, liquid salts or liquid metals) and would thus not be restricted to shoreline areas with ready made water supplies.

Adrian Simper, director of strategy and technology for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, agreed with that, adding that sites could include older disused nuclear locations that used to house reactors that are smaller than today’s giants but were the norm in their time.

“There may well be historic sites that, not just from a safety perspective but in terms of the infrastructure for cooling and the infrastructure for distribution, might be inaccessible economically for a modern large gigawatt-scale reactor but might be able to support one or two small reactors,” Simper said. Experts testifying at earlier hearings made the same point. For instance both Simper and Rolls-Royce chief scientific officer Paul Stein — who testified in June — singled out the disused Trawsfynydd site in north Wales, which sits along a man made lake and not on sea, as a candidate for an SMR site.

The NDA itself is interested in reactor designs that could help the NDA dispose of its 140 metric tons of plutonium – the world’s largest civilian stash – by burning it as fuel. It is evaluating GE-Hitachi’s sodium-cooled fast reactor, PRISM, and the CANDU reactor from Canada’s Candu Energy Inc. It is also strongly considering making “mixed-oxide” (MOX) fuel that would blend plutonium and uranium for use in conventional designs.

The NDA’s evaluation process has dragged on. It had at one point expected to narrow down its choice to two of those three reactors by the summer of 2013, but that has yet to happen. Simper told the committee that the NDA should now decide by 2016.

Meanwhile, the select committee will hold its fourth and final hearing on SMRs in either September or October, after Parliament returns from its summer recess on Sept. 1. Prime Minister David Cameron’s recently appointed energy minister, Matt Hancock, is expected to testify, although the committee has not confirmed that. Hancock is with the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which has been participating in another review of SMRs via its membership in the Energy Technologies Institute. ETI is a public-private partnership including Rolls-Royce, oil companies  BP and Shell and others, which earlier this year issued a request for proposals that would explain how SMRs could join the British energy mix.

Photo is from William M. Connelly via Wikimedia

Update, Sept. 21, 2014:  The committee did indeed hold its fourth and final hearing, on Sept. 10, when it grilled the UK’s new energy minister Matthew Hancock (from the Department of Energy and Climate Change) about why the Cameron government has yet to deliver its own delayed report on small modular reactors. He deferred to Chris Pook from the government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills, who blamed SMR developers for not providing enough information. The committee then asked Hancock for a sneak preview of what the report might say. His answer was classic political equivocation, but at the same time reflected economic realities and optimism:

“I think the best way to describe this is that there is undoubtedly the medium to long-term potential for small modular reactors, but while it is undoubted it is also potential. We should not be absolute about this. There is clear evidence around the world for the potential, yet bringing that potential to market will be a challenge. Bringing it to market at a cost that is cost competitive, at least with conventional nuclear and ultimately with other low carbon, zero carbon sources, is an important and as yet unverified request, but that is what we need to work towards. As an optimist, as we discussed, not at the last hearing but the one before that, this is an area that we undoubtedly need to look at, to continue to work on and I am very much looking forward to the report as a publication. It will inform the market; it will inform stakeholders and commentators; and it will undoubtedly inform the policy makers, too.”

Hancock also clarified that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – which is itself examining how to use alternative reactors – has not been part of the energy department’s study, nor has the Office of Nuclear Regulation. He said he was optimistic that SMRs could be cost competitive, and that the government is considering funding a demonstrator project.

You can read the transcript of the fourth hearing here, and you can watch a video recording of it here (forward to the 9:48 mark). The Parliamentary committee is preparing a report on the four hearings.

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