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SMRs: Small scale, big opportunity

SMRs possess numerous advantages over existing nuclear plants and the UK is poised to tap into the technology’s potential, argues Colin Elcoate


Many companies are already developing their capabilities to manufacture SMRs

Credit: Babcock & Wilcox

When I gave an interview last year to PEi, it was unlikely that many people outside of the UK’s nuclear industry had heard of small modular reactors (SMRs).

Renewed media interest in nuclear power – centred around a final decision on Hinkley Point C – has in recent weeks rightly catapulted SMRs into public consciousness for the first time.

Some of the recent media coverage has been extremely helpful in terms of educating a wider audience about the potential of SMRs and how they could form an important pillar in future UK energy policy.

In July, the energy editor of the Financial Times, Kiran Stacey, penned an excellent and well-balanced piece called ‘Small modular reactors are nuclear energy’s future’. Stacey pointed out the inherent benefits of SMRs while also citing their limitations.

Other media headlines have been typically less helpful. SMRs have been rebranded “pint-sized power plants” and “mini-nukes”.

Overall, though, I think it is positive for the UK that the future of nuclear energy is being discussed so openly and that it is driving media headlines for the first time in decades.

Such interest will be crucial in informing the business community and the wider public about the benefits of SMR technology in terms of providing a safe, clean and secure source of energy.

As an industry we must engage the general public and get them excited about what this technology can do. We must also spell out the global export potential for the whole UK nuclear supply chain and how it will create jobs and embed expertise across the nation.

SMR advantages

As someone who has spent 20-plus years in the nuclear industry, I’m not going to run down large-scale nuclear power plants of current or future designs.

This is not a zero-sum game with SMRs over large-scale nuclear that many in the UK media would like to portray.

Large-scale nuclear power plants still have a crucial role to play in the UK and in the world’s energy mix.

For evidence of this, one needs to look no further than the UK.

Without the construction of new large-scale nuclear plants, the UK will struggle to meet the ambitious climate change commitments it made at COP21 in Paris last year.

Do we really want to go back to building more fossil-fuelled power stations, and do we truly believe that renewables can meet the ever-increasing demand on their own?

The Chinese example is also instructive. China, which is constructing 40 large-scale reactors over the next four years, is investing heavily in large nuclear power stations, SMRs and, of course, renewables.

They clearly see that both nuclear technologies coupled with renewables represent a ‘win-win’ scenario.

To my mind, SMRs possess numerous advantages over existing nuclear power stations.

One main benefit is that SMRs can be up and running on an accelerated timeline in comparison to existing nuclear power stations.

SMRs can be made in factories (e.g., ‘modularization’) to set designs and to consistent standards, resulting in savings in time and money for both producers and buyers. Many companies are already developing their capabilities to manufacture SMRs this way.

Consequently, SMRs can be operationally up and running very quickly without the delays which we’ve seen in the recent commissioning of larger nuclear power stations.

And as more renewables come online, SMRs have a distinct advantage over 1 GW+ reactors in that they can balance output and ‘load follow’ by providing dispatchable energy. In the decades ahead, this will be crucial when there is more and more renewable energy being produced in the system but still with the obvious limitation of intermittent production.

Differing technologies

The SMR landscape is varied and exciting. SMR technologies that are currently being developed can typically be characterized as light water reactors, high temperature and gas cooled reactors, and liquid metal and fast breeder reactors.

Each, of course, has its pros and cons technically and commercially, and the technical readiness of each design varies enormously.

One of the benefits of some of the light water reactor SMR technologies is that they are essentially already proven. For instance, SMR technology in the form of Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) has existed for many decades in naval applications (nuclear submarines), and of course many of the potential vendors are offering scaled-down versions of existing large-scale technology.

In this instance, SMR technology is simply being redeployed based on existing experience and technology from both civilian and military usage.

In contrast, several of the new SMR designs are more innovative light water reactor designs that take advantage of smaller reactor characteristics to simplify the design further, for example by relying on natural circulation rather than forced circulation via reactor coolant pumps.

The high-temperature and gas-cooled reactor designs that come under the SMR heading would be used for electricity generation, but they are especially well-suited to providing process heat for industrial purposes, including hydrogen production.

Finally, the concept of liquid metal or fast breeder reactors being built under the SMR banner is an interesting one. There is already sound global experience in developing these technologies. The benefits include the provision of sustainable nuclear fuel cycle services.

This means that these reactors are designed to breed new fuel (i.e., generate more fissile material than they consume) as well as consume recycled nuclear waste as fuel.

They could even support non-proliferation efforts by consuming material from former nuclear weapons programmes – all of which are significant advantages.

With many companies across the globe pioneering these changes, it is likely that SMR technology in many forms will be ready for widespread deployment within the next decade.

These technologies are superbly tailored to answering some of the world’s many energy needs, such as rising energy demand, climate change, water purification and decentralized district heating in both the developed and developing worlds. For much of the off-grid developing world, the future potential for SMRs is huge.

The UK’s opportunity

The UK is in a position to benefit profoundly from the opportunities that SMRs offer its nuclear supply chain.

The government’s recent SMR competition, which entails an investment of à‚£250 million ($319 milion) in an ambitious nuclear research and development programme, was launched in November 2015 and is a unique way of encouraging foreign companies to view the UK as a proving ground for the whole future SMR industry.

What could be better for the prospects of the UK nuclear supply chain, with its high-skills and proud manufacturing heritage, than to embolden foreign companies to come to the UK to create a new global industry?

As part of the UK supply chain I would just ask myself two questions around capability and capacity: Does the UK supply chain have the capability to answer the global SMR challenge? The answer to this is a resounding ‘yes’. And, does the UK have the capacity to answer the challenge? At present, the answer is ‘no’. But I believe that this can be transformed to a ‘yes’ once the UK grasps the opportunity in front of it.

For these reasons, I’m hugely enthused by the government competition and await the results with great anticipation.

Ready-made site

One thing barely mentioned in recent debates has been the fact that the UK already has a ready-made site for the first operational SMR.

Recently, a parliamentary committee concluded that Trawsfynydd in North Wales is a “standout candidate” for locating the UK’s first SMR.

The true benefits of SMRs can be seen at Trawsfynydd. First, the Trawsfynydd site in Snowdonia was previously home to two small gas-cooled Magnox reactors with a total of 470 MW.

Locating an SMR with its relatively small physical size and power output on a former site would lead to minimal disruption to the area, including to the grid.

Second, SMRs can be designed to be visually unobtrusive – an important consideration at Trawsfynydd, an area of outstanding natural beauty. SMRs are typically built below ground level, which improves protection from natural and man-made hazards.

Third, people in the Trawsfynydd area, as in other communities across the UK, are already familiar and comfortable with nuclear technology and would provide the ideal workforce to support a new plant.

As the report of the parliamentary committee put it: “Nuclear power has a long history in Wales, supplying power to large parts of the nation and providing thousands of people with well-paying jobs.”

Fourth, an SMR at Trawsfynydd would complement the first Boiling Water Reactor in the UK at Wylfa, and would be a significant and symbolic boost to a country that saw the closure of the last Wylfa reactor last year.

Fifth, as the government looks to reinvigorate British industry post-EU Referendum, SMRs have the potential to stimulate growth in the UK’s nuclear supply chain, creating jobs and wider export opportunities.

Global opportunities

As the government competition concludes, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the SMR debate develop.

The current high level of interest in SMRs is something we should build on. The nuclear industry must talk about the tangible benefits that it can deliver to society.

With strong UK government backing in the form of funding, the prognosis for SMRs in the UK looks sound. Just a few weeks ago Climate Change News’ Paul Brown even posed the intriguing question of whether every town in the UK could have its own SMR.

Therefore, for me, with an urgent global need for new sources of safe, secure, low-carbon and affordable energy, it’s a question of not ‘if’, but ‘when’ with SMRs.

Colin Elcoate is vice-president for business development at SPX FLOW and is based in Bristol in the UK.