SMRs 'crucial' to decarbonising UK economy, says report

25 January 2018

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could be "a crucial technology" in efforts to decarbonise the UK's energy system, according to a report published today by the Policy Exchange. The report makes recommendations as to how government policy can lay the groundwork for their development and deployment.

"Decarbonising our existing electricity system with 100% renewable energy would be possible, but unnecessarily expensive and perhaps unsustainalbe," The Policy Exchange says in its new report, Small modular reactors: The next big thing in energy? "The intermittent nature of solar and wind would mean that large amounts of under-utilised backup capacity would be required at great expense to the consumer/taxpayer." However, the reports says, "It is clear that in meeting our low-carbon energy needs that nuclear power should play a crucial role."

The Policy Exchange notes that in Western liberalised economies, "traditional nuclear power plants are not thriving". Utilities are having problems financing new build projects while vendors are struggling to reduce costs and complete projects on schedule. "Small modular reactors could be a solution," it says.

The UK government launched the first phase of an SMR competition in 2016 to identify the best value SMR design for the UK. A decision on how to proceed with the second phase is due in the coming months.

The Policy Exchange says, "The government should choose at least one Generation III+ design SMR to take forward through detailed design to demonstration. The metrics on which to judge the best SMR should be simplicity of design, potential for cost reductions and the speed of deployment."

It also suggests the government should launch a consultation with heavy industry into what services advanced Generation IV reactor designs could also bring that would be of use to them, such as hydrogen production to use in low-carbon steel manufacturing.

SMR vendors should also prepare for hydrogen to become a larger part of our economy, the report suggests. Such reactors could be used to provide district heating and to supply power for electric vehicles.

The government should also commission polling of populations living closest to potential sites for SMRs to inform decisions on where they are located.

The report's author, Matt Rooney, Policy Exchange's energy and environment research fellow, said: "In the next decades, we are going to need previously unthinkable levels of new low-carbon electricity capacity for charging electric vehicles and to replace gas and coal. Whilst the cost reductions of solar and wind power have been impressive, their very nature means we can't rely on them without investing huge amounts in storage technology."

He added, "There is no other low-carbon energy which can match nuclear power for scale and reliability, as well as the potential to use it for other services like district heating and hydrogen production. The failure of the nuclear industry to prove that it can finance and build large reactors on time and budget means that the development of small modular reactors must be one of the central goals of government energy policy."

The Policy Exchange is an educational charity whose mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy.

Jenifer Baxter, head of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: "This report from Policy Exchange demonstrates the continuing interest in developing SMRs. There is the potential for first of a kind demonstration sites throughout the UK at existing and decommissioned nuclear sites. As we make preparations to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom Treaty), SMRs could provide the UK with significant opportunities to secure the country's future nuclear industry post-Brexit."

She added, "Pushing ahead with the commercialisation of SMRs would enable the UK energy and manufacturing sectors to collaborate creating a world leading environment of new nuclear developments supporting low-carbon generation and the growth in interconnected engineering skills."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News