The Government has just announced a £40 million research programme into so-called advanced modular reactor technology that is highly unlikely ever to see any practical use. That is because the so-called small modular reactors (SMRs) are much too expensive for civilian use.
In an important sense it is nonsense to talk about research to develop SMRs as a ‘new’ technology simply because they already exist. They power military submarines and also US aircraft carriers. Their design is simply a smaller version of the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) design that dominates the world nuclear power industry. Indeed PWRs began as small projects housed in submarines which were then developed up in scale so that they could produce electricity more cheaply.
Hence the reason that these small nuclear plant are not normally used to power grid electricity supplies is simply that at such small scale they are hopelessly expensive. They are only seen as useful in a very niche, military, situation. In fact the mainstream nuclear industry knows this all too well, but feels that is unwise to upset people who like the idea of nuclear power but realise that large nuclear plant are too expensive and take too long to build.
So what is the Government’s new research programme into SMRs? Part of the programme is not about SMRs at all. One project is about fusion power, wherein people have little idea about the practical form it would take. Another project is about small fast reactors. There has been much research about fast reactors over the years, and they have never been seen as economic propositions compared to PWRs. So making small fast reactors seems like a double piece of commercial fantasy!
The third project is about high temperature reactors. Again, it is not the first time this has been tried, and this type of design was spurned by nuclear developers mainly in favour of light water reactors. Even if we assume the nuclear developers were somehow mistaken in this choice of nuclear technology, I can see no reason to believe that small high temperature reactors would be any more economic than small PWRs.
Added to this are the efforts by Rolls Royce to their so-called small modular reactor initiative. They are trying to get the Government to provide some £250 million worth of funding to help them with design work in order to achieve approval from the Office for Nuclear Regulation. What is interesting about Rolls Royce’s proposals is that their suggested nuclear plant is neither small nor modular in the sense that many people assume.
At 450 MW for their proposed plant, the plant is not far off the same order of magnitude as conventional plant – for example the AGR series that currently generates the bulk of British nuclear plant has units of around 600-660 MW. In fact, as Tom Burke points out, they are close to the size of Britain’s first generation of reactors, the ‘Magnox’ reactors. Neither is the plant proposed by Rolls Royce modular in the sense that such plant can be rolled off a production line. What Rolls Royce claims is that some parts can be produced in a ‘modular’ fashion. This is not the same are producing whole units off a production line, and in fact the developers of the nuclear plant Vogtle in the USA also claim to produce parts in a ‘modular ‘fashion (although this plant is now hopelessly behind schedule with very large cost overruns).
All in all what passes for ‘small modular reactor’ initiatives in the UK seem to be a mixture of fantasy and misunderstanding that will do nothing to take nuclear power forward. What is fascinating is the extent to which people place credence in this SMR story – to the extent that I even hear that people have serious debates about whether SMRs are suitable for district heating. One might as well talk about whether unicorns should be brought inside barns during winter time or left to feed in the field. I suppose there is so much wishful thinking about SMRs because people do not want to face the reality that nuclear power has failed in economic terms.
But there is so much money floating around based on this wishful thinking that serious policy analysts are forced, often against their better judgement, to declare that there might be something in SMRs. Otherwise they feel they might be left out of the party if they denounce it all as fantasy. Now that’s a pity.