Could UK have small modular reactors by 2030?

Small modular reactors could support decarbonisation of heating in UK if deployed as CHP.
Published: Fri 14 Oct 2016

Views are mixed on the role of nuclear in the future energy mix and while some countries are turning their backs on the technology, others – such as the UK – view it as an essential component of a diversified low carbon energy system.

With technology advances, there are opportunities for both large scale and especially small scale modular reactors (SMRs), which should offer a lower cost, more rapid to deploy and distributed option. [Engerati-Nuclear Energy Advances and Nuclear Energy’s Future In Europe] Numerous different SMR designs are under development around the world but so far, only a handful of units are under construction or in operation.

While the UK’s large nuclear programme is well, and controversially, under way – as the recent approval for Hinckley Point C has indicated – the country is also making a strong push for SMR development. In November 2015, the government committed £250 million for nuclear research and development including SMRs. Subsequently in March of this year the first phase of a competition was announced to identify the best value SMR design for the UK. [Engerati-Offshore Wind Gets Boost In UK]

SMRs in UK

Now a new study from the UK Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) presents the case for bringing the first SMRs in UK in operation by 2030, setting out a ‘credible integrated schedule’ for a ‘first of a kind’ development. This starts with the immediate development by government of a white paper, followed by the identification of an operator and vendor early in 2017 and the first regulatory interventions towards the end of that year.

Much of the focus of the first five years is on developing a generic design and putting in place the conditions to achieve a final investment decision by mid-2025. In this the government’s role is crucial in encouraging the necessary early investor confidence with the development of a policy framework which progressively reduces the risks, the report states.

Assembly and testing of the first system would start thereafter, with delivery on site in the second half of 2028.

“Our analysis shows that it is possible to have a first of a kind SMR operating by 2030 if SMR developer(s), SMR vendor(s), government and regulators work together in an integrated programme,” comments ETI strategy manager Mike Middleton, who authored the study.



Role of SMRs

The study also looks at the long-term roles of SMRs in the UK energy system, noting that there are still significant uncertainties regarding the economics of these units.

If deployed alongside large reactors, SMRs can deliver additional baseload generation but they may be less cost effective compared with the large reactors. With flexibility in SMR power delivery they may be important also in helping to balance the grid, particularly with an increased capacity from intermittent renewables.

In addition, SMRs could be cost effective if deployed as combined heat and power (CHP) for energising district heat systems. This is because the additional costs to deliver CHP are small, whilst potential heat revenues are large, creating significant benefits for operators and consumers. As such -  and as seems probable - if city scale district heat using low carbon sources is to be deployed as one of the means of decarbonising heating, then SMRs in the UK should be deployed ‘CHP ready’. [Engerati-Decarbonising homes – the UK challenge and Integrating Onsite and District Generation (Heat & Power)]

Siting of SMRs

With a standard design and due to their smaller size, SMRs can be built in factories before being assembled on site. This standardisation has the potential to accelerate cost reduction through the economy of multiples.

They also may be more easily sited than large scale reactors. The report states that a range of locations in the UK have the characteristics for potential early deployment of SMRs, including a number of sites potentially suitable for a ‘first of a kind’ SMR. These haven’t yet been disclosed.

In the case of inland SMRs, it is also suggested consideration is given to the concept of deploying them as ‘air cooled condenser ready’ in order to mitigate the risk of water scarcity.

Further reading

ETI: Preparing For Deployment of A UK Small Modular Reactor By 2030

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