Debate Magazine

A Mini Solution to Nuclear Mess

Posted on the 22 January 2019 by Markwadsworth @Mark_Wadsworth

Fine article by Anthony Hilton in the Evening Standard:
... there is another option, though not one which environmentalists favour, and that is small modular reactors.
Rolls-Royce has been making and maintaining the power plants which drive the nuclear-powered submarines carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent since at least the Sixties. Today it is the largest employer of nuclear scientists and engineers in the country, with a range of expertise matched by only a handful of countries round the world.
It hit on the bright idea of using this expertise to develop similar-sized mini nuclear power plants which could be made in a factory, transported on a lorry and used to generate enough electricity to supply a city the size of Leeds. It saw a huge opportunity to secure world leadership in an emerging technology which could be worth more than £100 billion in exports from 2030 onwards.
It argued that these units provide a practical alternative to vast plants such as Hinkley which, because they are so big and complex, are almost always one-offs with costs to match. SMRs in contrast would be one design with standardised components reaping the benefits of factory-based volume production so that the economies of standardisation would trump the economies of scale.
The country has committed itself to becoming a low-carbon economy. The company argues its SMRs would be a cheaper way than building big new nuclear plants to supply the secure, reliable low-carbon electricity baseload the country will need for this to happen. It would also be timely, which is important given how little spare capacity there is in the UK generating industry.
But as the technology needed government funding this would have required a radical change in how Whitehall operates, which is simply impossible. It required Government to make a commitment to an industrial policy which supports UK intellectual property, advanced manufacturing and long-term high-value jobs in the UK.

Here's the tricky bit:
It required Government to make available resources so the licensing and safety-assessment programme could run smoothly and remove the risk of the whole thing being endlessly delayed. It required further long-term thinking in the form of a promise to buy at least seven of the plants so that Rolls-Royce could capture the economies of scale in manufacturing which are essential to bringing the costs down.
It required Government to be willing to provide matched funding in the development phase of the project. And finally it required Government support to assist the company in fully developing its export markets.
Needless to say the Government has declined to do this and Rolls-Royce as a result is no longer speculatively prepared to pour in its own funds and has mothballed the project. So the chances are that we will not have small nuclear reactors either, other than in our submarines.

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