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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Nils Pratley

Small nuclear reactors are a big, but sensible, step forward – now get on with it

The Sizewell B nuclear power station, operated by Electricite de France SA (EDF).
The Sizewell B nuclear power station, operated by Electricite de France SA (EDF). Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

New logo, new faces, and new promises to move at “unprecedented scale and pace” in driving the expansion of nuclear power in the UK. One should regard the fanfare for Great British Nuclear, the new government body, with scepticism because nothing moves quickly in the world of nuclear energy. Hinkley Point C, the enormous project in Somerset, is years behind schedule and Grant Shapps, the energy secretary, arrived bearing no fresh news on how (or if) the successor station at Sizewell C in Suffolk will be funded.

Yet there was a genuinely interesting – and welcome – piece of news. The government finally seems committed to exploring small modular reactors (SMRs), the cut-down versions of a nuclear power plant that have the potential – a crucial qualification at this stage – to become more commercially interesting prospects than monsters the size of Hinkley and Sizewell. A competition to pick the best designs will be run.

To critics of nuclear power, there is nothing new to see. Small stations are over-hyped and untested, and will probably be as infected by delays and cost overruns as traditional mega projects, they argue. And, of course, they may be proved right in time. While the technology (if approved) should be reliable because the UK’s safety standards are genuinely world-leading, the economics of SMRs are yet to encounter the real world of construction. Nobody has built one yet.

The point, though, is the one about potential. The construction theory says smaller designs allow “a relentless focus on modularisation,” as Rolls-Royce, near the front of the pack in this race to develop SMRs, puts it. Most of the work done in factories and finished parts are then transported by road for assembly. Construction risk, which is what traditionally causes budget blow-outs with huge plants, ought to be reduced. The first SMR may take a half a decade to build, but a £2.5bn project still looks easier to manage than a £30bn-ish one.

The output of Rolls’ design is only 470MW, against a combined 3.2GW for Hinkley’s twin reactors. But the gain, if the model is proved, should be the ability to replicate and the relative nimbleness in ordering new plants to meet demand. Finding suitable sites also ought to be a simpler affair.

It is on that basis that a commitment to push SMRs to the next stage of development is sensible. Rolls isn’t the only game in town by any means, but its design is the furthest advanced through the UK regulatory process and the project has already had £210m of public investment (plus £290m from backers). Given the possibility of building a serious export industry over decades, it would be perverse not to press on. The mini-tragedy in the expansion of windfarms in the UK is that the turbines are all imported.

Yes, expansion of wind, solar and batteries must also be accelerated urgently. But, if the UK is serious about building 24GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 to meet a quarter of our projected electricity needs and our net zero pledges, it is a high-risk strategy to bet everything on cumbersome projects such as Hinkley and Sizewell. In a saner world for energy policy, we would already know by now if the economics of SMRs are superior.

There are no guarantees of success and it’s fair to observe that SMRs have been pitched as the next big thing for about a decade already. We are, though, at a point where choices have to be made. Get on with it.

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