UK think tank urges nuclear innovation

28 April 2016

A think tank has urged the British government to spend money earmarked for nuclear R&D on ensuring that at least three advanced reactors including at least one small modular reactor (SMR) and a Generation IV design have completed regulatory assessment by the early 2020s.  

Weinberg Next Nuclear's report, Next Steps for Nuclear Innovation in the UK, notes the value of clean, low-carbon nuclear energy in improving energy security and mitigating climate change, but says that existing reactor designs have high upfront capital costs and are not sufficiently flexible to provide back-up to more intermittent generating options such as wind and solar. Advanced designs could address these drawbacks, so the UK government should support small nuclear reactors as well as large plants, the report says.

The latest study follows a report by the same foundation, The Need for Nuclear Innovation, published in November 2015. Later that month, the UK government announced plans to invest £250 million ($377 million) over five years in a nuclear R&D program to include a competition to identify the best value SMR for the country. The initial phase of the competition was launched in March, with a call for initial expressions of interest.

UK stakeholders

Westinghouse is engaging its UK stakeholders in its SMR offering to the country's government, the company announced today. Mark Menzies, member of parliament for the Fylde constituency where the company's Springfields site is located, said that he had already formally registered his support for Westinghouse's proposal to produce SMRs for the UK market. He said that feedback from stakeholders would be essential for as the proposal, which could see SMR pressure vessels sourced and manufactured in the UK, to move forward.

The first phase of the competition, which will also lead to the development of an SMR Roadmap to set out the policy framework and assess the potential for possible pathways for SMRs in the UK, will run until late 2016. Individual reactor designs will not be assessed at this stage.

The Weinberg report recommends a list of criteria that it says the government should use in selecting which designs to support during the second phase of the competition, with safety and non-proliferation of "critical importance". Cost, waste management, past experience with related designs, the ability to use alternative nuclear fuels, the ability to re-use used nuclear fuel and plutonium, flexibility to provide back-up for intermittent renewables and the potential to provide low-carbon heat and hydrogen are the other criteria that should be considered, the study says.

At least one of the reactors supported should be a Generation IV design that could use fuel made from previously used reactor fuel and from the UK's plutonium stocks. It suggests that SMRs and "micro-reactors" - reactors of less than 20 MWe capacity - will be cheaper to construct than large reactors.

It also supports a proposed increase in the resources of the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation, citing a lack of regulatory capacity as a "significant barrier" to nuclear innovation in the UK. The ONR's rigorous generic design assessment (GDA) process for a reactor design can take up to five years, but the regulator only has the resources to carry out two such exercises at the same time. At the moment it is assessing the AP1000 and Advanced Boiling Water Reactor designs - both Generation III+ reactors - and will not be able to begin assessing any other design until one of those GDAs has been completed.

Finally, the report proposes that UK regulators cooperate with their peers in other countries, citing US and Canadian regulatory practices where proposed reactor designs are discussed with developers before the formal regulatory process begins. It calls for a three-way collaboration to be established with the aim of establishing international standards for the safety of advanced reactors.

The report's author, Stephen Tindale, said: "The UK’s energy mix must be based on diversity. So the policy argument should not be whether to support solar, wind, [carbon capture and storage] or nuclear. 'All of the above' will be needed. Existing nuclear technology is very good, but future nuclear technology can be even better. If the £250 million is sensibly spent, it could contribute to the UK becoming a world leader in both small and Generation IV reactors."

Weinberg Next Nuclear is part of the Alvin Weinberg Foundation. The report was prepared with the sponsorship of Terrestrial Energy, Urenco and Moltex Energy, with Weinberg Next Nuclear retaining sole editorial control.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News