Kwasi Kwarteng recently announced an additional £100 million of government funding to continue the development of the Sizewell C nuclear power plant. Sizewell C will be a conventional GW scale fission nuclear plant, with the potential to meet 7% of the UKs electricity needs. However, in addition to projects such as Sizewell C, there is global recognition of the need for greater flexibility in the delivery of nuclear power in terms of available sites, speed of deployment and cost.  This article discusses the growing global momentum behind the development of advanced nuclear technologies such as Small Modular Reactors (“SMRs”) to meet those challenges.

Small Modular Reactors

SMRs are smaller versions of traditional light water reactors.  Rolls-Royce (R-R) is the UK’s leader in the development of SMR technology and Burges Salmon has been involved in this key programme advising Research and Innovation on its award of £210 million to R-R to develop its SMR design. The R-R SMR offers an entire power station over an area of roughly two football pitches. In doing so it offers even greater energy density (MW per unit area) than a traditional nuclear power plant and significantly more than renewables. By way of example each R-R SMR will produce between 220MW and 440MW of power to approximately one million homes, which would require approximately 150 onshore wind turbines.

The true promise of SMRs is that the production of multiple units in a factory setting (to maximise next of a kind savings) will offset and exceed the loss of economies of scale in producing smaller reactors. In addition, their advanced safety features, smaller size, lower capital cost and shorter construction time should mean they are easier to finance, quicker to build and deployable at a much wider variety of sites compared to conventional GW scale nuclear plants. Up to 90% of R-R’s SMR will be assembled in factory conditions before being transported to site and installed in the controlled environment of an on-site factory with integrated cranes and effluent management systems. The use of an on-site factory is intended to minimise environmental impacts and remove the risk of climate related delays, which have been estimated to account for 40% of schedule delays in nuclear projects constructed in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, it is estimated that the UK supply chain could deliver up to 80% or more of the required components furthering the UK’s ambition to be a leader in advanced nuclear technologies.

As well as conventional on grid electricity production, SMRs compact size and flexibility makes them especially well-suited to load follow renewable assets i.e. sending power to the grid when renewables cannot meet electricity demand but diverting heat and power to other applications such as desalination or the production of hydrogen, when they can. Smaller SMRs are also well suited to off grid applications such as providing power to remote communities or mining installations or supplying other energy or heat intensive industries such as data centres.  Hydrogen is anticipated to play a key role in transitioning the UK away from the more carbon intensive energy sources. As the government’s Hydrogen Strategy makes clear, low carbon hydrogen is a vital tool for decarbonising industries, such as aviation and steel production, which cannot be decarbonised by switching power to renewable electricity.

The Government backs Advanced Nuclear Technologies

The Energy White Paper recognises the potential of emerging nuclear technology to contribute towards the decarbonisation of the economy towards Net Zero by 2050. A £385 million Advanced Nuclear Fund has been established which, amongst other things, will progress one SMR to the demonstration stage by the early 2030s and will commit £40 million to developing the regulatory framework for advanced nuclear technologies and nurturing the supply chain in the UK.

The government continues to support the development of critical conventional nuclear power plants such as Sizewell C whilst enabling the next generation of advanced nuclear technologies which will be crucial in enabling nuclear power to contribute to the UK’s transition to Net Zero and maximising global export opportunities. To learn more about Burges Salmon’s SMR expertise including our experience working on the two SMR projects in Canada at Chalk River and Darlington, please visit our the SMR page of our website.

Drafted by Steve James, Ian Truman, Ian Salter, Ross Howells and Adam Reeves