The cost of going nuclear
Khai Trung Le looks at the technology of small modular reactors, as backers request significant amounts from UK taxpayers for construction costs and regulatory processes.
The astronomical price tag of Hinkley Point C has long instigated an interest in small modular reactors (SMRs) as a cheaper, flexible counterpoint to conventional large-scale nuclear power plants. However, the technology remains distant, and recent revelations about energy firms requesting taxpayer money threaten to undermine the image of SMRs as a cost-saving alternative.
SMRs aim to reduce costs by economies of multiples rather than scale, and vendors are proposing multiple designs, from traditional water-moderated cores to more esoteric molten salt and molten-metal-cooled cores. Professor Peter Flewitt, Vice Chair of the IOM3 Energy Materials Group, remarked on the lack of specificity regarding the definition of an SMR, saying to Materials World, ‘It could be something like a 1,000MW unit, or something on the back of a lorry.’
While there is excitement over reactor cores that can be easily transported on the roads, Flewitt believes the UK would benefit more from a fixed base SMR of larger capacity with flexibility of build and manufacturing, such as the Westinghouse-designed AP1000.
China began operating the world’s first AP1000, Sanmen 1, in October 2018, in the Zhejiang Province, swiftly followed by three more AP1000 reactors acorss the country within days. Flewitt acknowledged the strides countries such as China and South Korea were making in proliferating SMR technology, but the Zhejiang reactor was originally expected to begin generating in 2014, with lengthy delays caused by safety concerns and design changes.
In the UK, three AP1000s were earmarked for the future Moorside nuclear power station. However, Westinghouse’s bankruptcy in 2016 severely disrupted parent company Toshiba’s nuclear operations, particularly its UK arm, NuGeneration (NuGen), and Flewitt was unsure whether the AP1000 would fine its way to the country. Flewitt said, ‘It’s disappointing, but I don’t think they’re clear on where their financing will come from.’ Toshiba has since announced that it is scrapping its plans for the Moorside plant, which was expected to provide around 7% of UK electricity, and placing the future of Moorside nuclear in uncertainty, as Toshiba prepares to close NuGen after failing to secure a buyer.
Regardless, numerous entities have stated their interest in SMRs, including Assystem Energy & Infrastructure, the University of Bristol and Rolls-Royce, with the latter is developing a module demonstrator for the SMR with a consortium of UK-based companies after it was awarded a contract by the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in February 2018. Additionally, Rolls-Royce claims the export market could be worth as much as £400bln.
Matt Blake, Chief SMR Engineer at Rolls-Royce, said, ‘The UK SMR uses road transportable modules that are completed in factories and transported for direct “plug and play” installation on site, allowing a fleet of reactors to be built and operated with much greater levels of cost certainty and operational efficiency.’
The report, Market framework for financing small nuclear, from the Expert Finance Working Group on Small Nuclear Reactors, reveals that some firms have requested as much as £3.6bln of public money for construction costs. Others have requested up to £480m to assist designs through the regulatory process, a cost usually paid by nuclear energy companies.
Dr David Lowry, researcher and nuclear policy advisor, has strongly criticised the report for lacking detail, stating in a blog, ‘It makes no attempt to provide an analysis of how to provide market-based insurance for SMRs, against accidents and terrorist attack on modules in transit to site and in situ, nor how to privately fund SMR radioactive waste management. Yet these are real risks for nuclear power, SMRs included’.
However, Flewitt remarked that the UK has an extensive history of successfully transporting nuclear material, and there were no specific concerns regarding SMR technology. ‘It’s a problem of movement. We can make robust systems that are resistant to attack. It’s not an insurmountable problem, and would no doubt form part of the challenges from the regulator.’
Regardless, Flewitt was similarly disparaging of the government’s lack of proactivity in adopting SMRs. He concluded, ‘There are opportunities across the support and engineering supply chains, particularly materials supplied to the fabrication side. But government is not fulfilling its role as the coordinator. It wants it both ways – they want things to happen, but be independent of that movement.
‘What we found with the current newbuild in the UK, including Hinkley Point C, is money being raised in the open market. But if government had gone out to raise the money, they would’ve done it much cheaper than is currently being paid for raising that money, and done with the financial backing of the Treasury. I think it’s an issue with strategy and politics, rather than the technical challenges.’