Nuclear power: governments should get cracking on SMRs

Small-scale, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) have long been touted as a potential solution for the troubled nuclear industry. The concept is finally showing signs of life. Speed is of the essence.

Among the positive signals, the US has announced $275mn of funding for a new SMR to be built by NuScale in Romania. The UK has launched a competition to identify the best SMR design. GE/Hitachi is set to build the world’s first SMR plant in Darlington, Canada.

Such developments are encouraging. SMRs have the potential to contribute to the energy transition. Nuclear power is necessary to get greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. The International Energy Agency sees capacity doubling from 413GW today to 812GW by 2050. That is if the challenges of building a big nuclear reactor on time and on budget can be met. Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in the UK is expected to cost £32bn and has been delayed to 2027. Flamanville, in France, is more than a decade behind schedule.

In theory, it should be possible to build big reactors cheaply if the design could be standardised. But it may be easier to achieve scale benefits by building multiple small, modularised reactors instead. Components would be manufactured in factories and assembled on site. Companies involved estimate SMRs’ cost of electricity would be about $60-75/MWh.
Electricity from Hinkley Point will cost well over £100/MWh ($124).

There are other advantages. Small reactors do not need as much space, which means they can be built on the sites of decommissioned coal plants.

The snag is that SMRs are a long way away. Even companies proposing a smaller version of existing technologies need to go through a lengthy approval process. 

In the UK, Rolls-Royce’s SMR is 18 months into a process that certifies the safety of its generic design. Rolls-Royce will then need to see whether its technology is selected as best in kind by the UK. Commercial discussions will follow. It will also need to resubmit its designs for approval on a site-specific basis. Overall, it targets first power production by 2032.

That sort of timeline does not give SMRs much breathing room to contribute to the UK’s stated goal of net zero power generation by 2035. This does not mean pursuing the technology is futile. It simply means governments should get cracking.

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