Technology

Rethinking nuclear

 By Mike Scott

The drawn out saga of the UK’s Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which has been dogged by concerns over its technology, its cost, its security implications and environmental implications, illustrates how hard it is to build new large-scale nuclear power plants today. Mike Scott takes a look at the case for and against small, modular reactors (SMRs) and how likely they are to become a reality…

(Cover photo by www.infrastructure-intelligence.com)

Nuclear energy has many advantages in today’s electricity generation mix – it provides constant, baseload power with none of the greenhouse gases and other emissions of fossil fuel power stations. But it also has a serious image problem – there are issues around safety, security, contamination and how to get rid of waste.

Public sentiment on large-scale nuclear power plants has soured since the tsunami that hit the Fukushima facility in Japan in 2011. The new generation of European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) being championed by EDF has been beset by fears about the viability of the technology and cost overruns. The company’s efforts to build a new power station in the UK have been mired in controversy, illustrating just how hard it is to build new large-scale nuclear power plants in many markets today.

While a number of governments are pushing ahead with large-scale nuclear projects, another vision is gathering support. A growing number of commentators, such as The Economist and Scientific American, say that small is beautiful when it comes to nuclear. They advocate the rollout of a fleet of small, modular reactors (SMRs) in towns and cities across the world as a way of decarbonizing the energy system.

Several small nuclear modules can be interconnected to form a larger-scale nuclear power plant

SMRs are much smaller (less than 300 MW, but often around 50 MW) than the 1 GW-plus capacity of large-scale reactors. They can be largely pre-fabricated in factories and their design is simpler, making them higher quality, quicker to build and install, and safer than plants such as Hinkley Point C. They can be deployed in areas that would be unable to support a large plant because of a lack of infrastructure and they could also, in time, be much cheaper because of economies of scale.

They are also inherently more flexible. New plants can be built as they are needed, allowing supply to be more closely matched with demand within smaller, distributed energy systems. SMRs are not a pie in the sky idea – they are already used on nuclear submarines and in countries such as India and Pakistan. But the concept needs to be proved at large scale. Both the US and the UK are funding research into SMRs but the first reactors will be expensive, so they will need policy support as well.

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The Tennessee Valley Authority in the US has applied for permission to build a SMR that it hopes to bring online in the 2020s, while the UK’s Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) says SMRs could be operating in UK cities by 2030, providing not just clean power but low-carbon heat, too.

However, many questions remain – are residents, many of whom are not prepared to countenance wind turbines near their homes, ready to support nuclear power stations in their backyards? And do the benefits of nuclear still pertain in a world of cheap renewable electricity, energy storage and efficiency, smart grids and demand management?

about the author
Mike Scott
Journalist. Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Investing, Energy, Supply Chain, Transport, Circular Economy, Stranded Assets, ESG, Smart Cities, Wealth Management, Family Offices, Asset Management, EU.